[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Although I rapped it in MTN 25, the previous Gator McKlusky adventure White Lightning lingers in the memory as a middlin’-competent entry in the fast-driving, grin-and-punch genre of Southern melodrama—nothing to urge on discriminating audiences, but undeserving of particular scorn. Burt Reynolds had yet to be intelligently directed (Aldrich and Bogdanovich were just around the bend) but as long as Joseph Sargent had Ned Beatty, Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, and Diane Ladd to fall back on, that wasn’t an insuperable liability. Unfortunately, Reynolds has joined the list of superstars who can’t resist the compulsion to direct themselves—and also the list, nearly as long, of superstars who can’t direct. Gator proposes another instance of the slaphappy ’shine-runner McKlusky enlisting—this time under pressure from the authorities—to bust up the countywide crime empire of a baaaad country boy, one Bama McCall, and the film attempts to duplicate the modest success of its predecessor partly by duplicating quite a few of its elements and strategies. The implacable glide of canoes through swamp at the opening of White Lightning, as crooked sheriff Ned Beatty prepared to drown McKlusky’s college-boy brother and a fellow protestor, is reiterated here in the convergence of revenuers’ motorboats on Gator’s familial sanctum among the mangroves, Gator’s several car chases are compressed into a single James Bond–y boat pursuit here (although automotive destructiveness rears its hood in subsequent scenes); Gator gets drunk/drugged in a steamy nighttime sequence again, and director Reynolds even recaps director Sargent’s angular strategies as a smitten female stands poised above the hero and bares her charms.
Good-ol’-boy humor is my least favorite form of masculine love-antagonism in the cinema, but even a generous-minded peckerwood ought to weary rapidly of the snorting, yokking, hooting interplay between McKlusky and McCall (Jerry Reed, who was much more interesting as one of the Dixie Dancekings in W.W. and … ); there’s something awfully suspicious about the way everybody, including the heroine, has to tell us what a terrific sense of humor Ol’ Gator’s got. More seriously offensive is the film’s—and the director’s—attempting to have it both ways, upholding Gator as a basically decent-minded sort who turns off at the notion of exploiting blacks and snagging 15-year-old druggies as prostitutes, but still inviting hearty laughs at the expense of a toothy homo and a dull-witted giant who has to drive with his head stuck out of the sun roof of Bama’s red thunderwagon. (Presumably this schizoid attitude is mediated by the treatment of fat, sweaty, Jewish government man Jack Weston, a physically abused figure of fun who gets to turn comically heroic just before he dies.) William Fraker’s camerawork gets a nice sense of climate without turning fussy, and Hal Needham’s second-unit supervision keeps the action sequences watchable, but Reynolds’ notions of how to realize the dynamics of any given comic or dramatic scene are formulaic at best, and as for sustaining momentum—let alone consistent motivation·from scene to scene—forget it.
Direction: Burt Reynolds. Screenplay: William Norton. Cinematography: William A. Fraker. Editing: Harold F. Kress. Second unit direction: Hal Needham. Music: Charles Bernstein; theme song: Jerry Reed. Production: Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy.
The players: Burt Reynolds, Jerry Reed, Lauren Hutton, William Engesser, Burton Gilliam, Jack Weston, Alice Ghostley, Dub Taylor.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson