In 1984, we got Revenge of the Nerds. One of the greatest raunch fest movies of the 80s. It was crude, overflowing with nudity and made for a very specific audience of teenage horn bags. Because it was such a surprise success, it spawned a sequel three years later, Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. Not content with aiming for a other surprise cult hit, they went all out, chasing a mainstream audience. Toning down everything that made the first movie so unique, Nerds in Paradise was the kind of cookie cutter, bland nothing of a movie everyone expected the first one to be before they saw it. While 1973’s White Lightning didn’t have the same impact on me as Revenge of the Nerds, you can see the exact same studio thinking is more than likely what lead to its sequel, Gator.
Returned from another stint in prison and leading the quiet life of a bootlegger on a swamp with his father and daughter, Gator McKlusky’s (Burt Reynolds) life doesn’t stay quiet for long. The state Governor knows his re-election depends on cleaning up one small county, run by crime boss Bama McCall (Jerry Reed). The Governor calls in Irving Greenfield (Jack Weston), a New York law man who blackmails Gator into helping them track down McCall.
The blackmail turns into a genuine respect and friendship as Gator learns the real extent of McCall’s crimes and ruthlessness. Nothing gets an audience to hate a character more than under aged prostitution. Soon, Gator’s determined to take down McCall, not just to save himself, but because it’s the right thing to do. You see, this is a sequel, so Gator has to be a little more watered down and noble now.
I would never call White Lightning a classic, but it did have an edge to it that is clearly missing from Gator. While the first movie was content to revel in its white trash, swamp people, red neck glory, there’ a clear attempt to make Gator a little more appealing to a wider audience. He has a young daughter now, he’s fighting a much more evil enemy, he’s on the side of the law, everything that makes the character of Gator a little less interesting and little more easily digestible.
After being a huge Smokey and the Bandit fan all my life, it was kind of interesting to see Reynolds and Reed play off each other as enemies, instead of the best friends in movie history as the Bandit and the Snowman. Reed is fine as a baddie, making the most of what he’s given, and a couple of showdowns between him and Reynolds are fun enough, but there just isn’t enough there for the actors to really make anything from.
This is a story about swampy, moonshine bootleggers getting caught up in some crazy shit. There are car chases, a forced in romance and lots of red neckery. Those ingredients sound to me like they should add up to some goofy, B-movie fun. And in White Lightening, they did. But in Gator, everyone just got a little too carried away thinking they were making something more.