[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
From the tone of the “Emergence of Burt Reynolds” ballyhoo that heralded its arrival, I expected The End to be the bigger hit of the past summer’s two Reynolds films. But despite his competent bid for respect as a serious directorial talent in The End, Reynoldsâ€”on either side of the cameraâ€”is more engaging in the midst of the humble good-timeyness of Hooper. Hal Needham directed the latter, a stuntman’s paean to stuntmen; but one glance at the credit and cast lists for the two films makes a case for regarding both as the product of the Burt Reynolds stock company that has been slowly a-building through White Lightning, Gator and Smokey and the Bandit. These folks enjoy one another so darn much it’s pretty hard for us not to enjoy them, too.
That kind of relationship lends itself not only to “fun” filmmaking but also to some inspired improvisational playing, like the Gabby Hayes and Jimmy Stewart imitations of real-life bosom buddies James Best and Burt Reynolds in an early scene in Hooper. The loyal friendship of these two stuntmen is an important motif in Hooper, and works all the better for its reflection of a realâ€”and touchingâ€”relationship between Best and Reynolds. That spirit informs both films, and gives them a life and warmth beyond their modest means. In each, Reynolds plays a guy named Sonny who finds meaning in the face of absurdity through a love-hate relationship with a man whose character complements his own. The End is less conventionally plotted, a series of skits around a central themeâ€”not so much the theme of death but the theme of Sonny Lawson’s relationship with God, always treated comically but reflecting a serious recognition of a basic human need. In that regard, Sonny in the last reel of The End has much in common with Cable in the first reel of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Someone has pointed out already that The End is like a combination Woody Allenâ€“Mel Brooks film with the pain-based humor of the early scenes giving way to hysterical slapstick and comedy of a more biological bent following the mid-film entrance of Dom DeLuise. Reynolds’s style here is spare, and at its most telling when it runs to cut-in personal touches like Sonny’s nostalgic little smile as he glances at Marlin Perkins doing a Wild Kingdom show on kinkajousâ€”a dying man’s last impression of his parents’ homelife, as he leaves their apartment with a superdose of borrowed sleeping pills; or coming out of the hospital to face a changed world in which he must accept the fact that he is dying, stopping and bending to sniff the sweetness of a hitherto-unappreciated flower, and then violently retching.
Yet for all its personalism, and comedic seriousness, I’m not convinced that The End is a more personal expression of Reynolds and his world than Hooper. The action of Hooper is set in motion by the arrival in Hollywood of “Ski” (Jan-Michael Vincent), a new young stuntman whose agility and daring threaten to supplant reigning stunt king Sonny Hooper (Reynolds), just as Sonny had superseded the great Jocko Doyle (Brian Keith). Doyle nostalgically recalls the good times of stunting in the early days, and the idealistic Ski asks, “Is that all it is for you, good times?”â€”suggesting that there are more meaningful reasons for taking a stuntman’s risks, including “to prove something to yourself, or to show that a man can do just about anything he puts his mind to.” Jocko laughs it offâ€””That’s too deep for me!”â€”stressing the gap in viewpoint among the film’s principals. Between the purely physical approach of Jocko, in it for the good times, and the metaphysical approach of Ski, who wants to demonstrate something about the human condition, is Hooper, representing that middle ground of proving something to himself. His recognition of the essentially self-destructive instinct that makes him live with danger does little to deter him from the stuntman’s way of life. When he finally decides to step down, it is as much out of loyalty to those who love him as for fear of doing himself permanent injury. By film’s end we feel closer than ever to the Jocko side of Sonny, and Ski has been moved from his seriousmindedness to the what-the-hell, beer-drinking, cop-baiting good times that, after all, are the most meaningful thing in the world of Burt Reynolds and Company.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Direction: Burt Reynolds. Screenplay: Jerry Belson. Cinematography: Bobby Byrne. Production design: Jan Scott. Editing: Donn Cambern. Music: Paul Williams. Production: Lawrence Gordon; executive: Hank Moonjean.
The players: Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Sally Field, Joanne Woodward, Kristy McNichol, Robby Benson, Carl Reiner, David Steinberg, Strother Martin, Norman Fell, Pat O’Brien, Myrna Loy, James Best, Alfie Wise.
Direction: Hal Needham. Screenplay: Bill Kerby and Thomas Rickman, after a story by Walt Green and Walter Herndon. Cinematography: Bobby Byrne. Art direction: Hilyard Brown. Stunt coordination: Bobby Bass. Editing: Donn Cambern. Music: Bill Justis. Production: Hank Moonjean; executive: Lawrence Gordon.
The players: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jan-Michael Vincent, James Best, Brian Keith, Robert Klein, John Marley, Alfie Wise, Adam West.