When I was a kid, between the ages of about 6 and 12, I don’t know if there were any movies I saw more times than the first two Smokey and the Bandits. I thought Burt Reynolds was the coolest dude in the world, and his Trans-Am was the coolest car in the world. Not seen as often, but still in pretty regular rotation in my childhood lounge room were the first two Reynolds filled Cannonball Run movies (also popular in my house was the Reynolds / Dolly Parton team up, The Best Little Whore House in Texas. But that should probably be talked about in therapy, not here).
Those Reynolds movies of the 70s and early 80s were just too simple to cock up. Give him a fast car and let him revel in all his hilarious, charismatic, egotistical glory. Which is why, I was so pumped to find out that the Reynolds car chase phenomenon started before Smokey and the Bandit. It started three years earlier, with White Lightning.
As Gator McKlusky, Reynolds uses his skills behind the wheel as a moon shine runner in Louisiana. But when his straight laced, college student younger brother is killed by local moonshiners, Gator decides to take the organisation down, including local the Sherriff (Ned Beatty).
There’s a funny moment towards the end when White Lightning attempts to dabble in some topical themes when it’s revealed Gator’s little brother was a protesting some sort of generic conservative action of the era. But it comes off as more cluelessly funny than in any way insightfully scathing or intelligent. There’s an even weirder, more jarring and clueless tone at the very end that made the whole movie seem different in those closing seconds.
The plot is paper thin, the characters are less than one dimensional (if that’s possible), and most of the performances are amateur at best. Which is exactly what you need in a movie like White Lightning. The last thing you want is a story that makes you think, or compelling characters played by competent actors. I wouldn’t want to risk any of that distracting me from the amazingness that is Burt Reynolds, driving a car, stealing hearts and dropping his signature laugh every 10 to 15 minutes.
After White Lightning, director Joseph Sargent didn’t have the most illustrious career. There are a lot of tele movies, and what is regarded as possibly the worst sequel in the history of sequels, Jaws: The Revenge. But he did make one of the all time great 70s B-movies, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. As cheap and nasty as White Lightning might be, there’s a definite film making skill and visual style to it. Combined with the gritty cool of Pelham just one year later, it really makes me wish Sargent had been given more of a chance. There’s a sweaty, dirty edge to both movies that makes them more effective than their sensationalist, low rent story lines would suggest.