Sunday, June 6, 2010
Worth More Than A Piece Of Film
It might be a sad fact of life that summer movies don’t star Burt Reynolds anymore. Some people probably consider this a good thing and while a few titles could certainly be mentioned to prove their point looking at one of his starring vehicles now feels like a reminder of when films released during the lazy days of summer were much more of an enjoyable good time with not so many worries about life and death. A terrific actor who was also at one time just about the biggest star in the world, Reynolds made some films back during his heyday that are/were completely loved, particularly the original SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT which I just watched again recently and found it to be a huge amount of breezy fun. In the middle of those nonstop chases I even found its innocence a little affecting, as if it was set over an endless day of driving in the 70s, one that the sun would never set on. Leading up to that triumph for him were other enjoyable pictures like WHITE LIGHTNING and THE LONGEST YARD but by a certain point he began appearing in a few ambitious projects that possibly weren’t the sort of thing his core audience wanted (STARTING OVER, THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN) as well as making a few unfortunate choices like turning down the Jack Nicholson role in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. Not to mention displaying maybe a little too much cockiness. That nonstop ride for Burt had to end sometime.
The trajectory of his continual teaming with stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham says a lot. Their partnership kicked off with the first SMOKEY, a smash hit, but it all went downhill fast with a sequel that’s pretty terrible, the smash hit THE CANNONBALL RUN (I’ve enjoyed watching that one for years, but I’m not going to admit that to you), the lousy STROKER ACE and finally hitting the absolute bottom with CANNONBALL RUN II. In between the two BANDITs and more than a little forgotten today (except maybe for a reference in Tarantino's DEATH PROOF) is the stuntman comedy HOOPER, very much made in a time long before CGI when if a guy jumped off a building in a movie he was really jumping off that building. Released in July 1978, it feels like an attempt to try to take the good ol’ boy fun of their big hit and toss in a few more personal touches. If Needham were a better director, or even if he just wanted to be a better director, it might reach for some kind of late 70s New Hollywood example of Hawksian camaraderie. But, as anyone who’s seen a few of his films probably knows, he’s not a better director so it never hits that much of a boil and is ultimately just kind of pleasant. It’s still not bad at all, just a little underwhelming.
Sonny Hooper (Burt Reynolds), known by all as the greatest stuntman alive, is working on the film THE SPY WHO LAUGHED AT DANGER (starring Adam West, who I guess is appearing as himself) for egotistical director Roger Deal (Robert Klein). He lives with girlfriend Gwen Doyle (Sally Field, introduced by greeting her guy at the end of the workday in short shorts and carrying a couple of cans of Coors) whose father is the legendary stuntman Jocko Doyle (Brian Keith). After being talked into performing at a charity stunt show, Hooper meets rising young stuntman Delmore “Ski” Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent) who he hears is the young Sonny Hooper. The pair get along just fine but the younger man still compels Hooper to up his game but after one stunt he learns just how close he is to permanent injury. He decides that after this film he’s going to call it quits but first he and Ski have to pull off the greatest stunt anyone’s ever seen.
It’s all very laid back stuff and could be looked at as nothing more than a portrayal of how this director and star approached their own style of filmmaking. To them they don’t look at it as making a grand personal statement where they express their love of film as much as the whole thing is just a chance to have fun hanging out with friends and drink a lot of beer while doing the best job possible to entertain people (by the time of their last few movies, they seem to have been only paying attention to the hanging out and drinking beer part). They certainly don’t have much in common with the snobbish Roger Deal played by Klein, who heard musing about how movies are ‘tiny pieces of time’ is pretty obviously meant to be a slam at Peter Bogdanovich who previously directed Reynolds in AT LONG LAST LOVE and NICKELODEON (Needham worked on the stunts in the latter film as well). There might be a few differences—I’ll bet Bogdanovich was more likely to drop a Ford reference instead of Fellini (“It has a nice greyness like LA STRADA,” Deal offers after looking over a location) but this probably never fooled anyone who recognized in Klein’s demeanor what must have been the arrogance that the LAST PICTURE SHOW director displayed at the time. The film shoot portrayed here presents a bunch of crew members having a good time without any real cares in the world while the producer frets nearby but gets along with them too—it’s easy to imagine the artist director off by himself brooding about the art, wondering what the critics will say and the only glimpse of a writer we ever get is when he seen furiously leaving the set after his script was rewritten. This certainly isn’t any kind of meditative examination of film vs. reality like in THE STUNT MAN and while some of the details feel perfectly plausible some are a bit of a stretch--one big sequence of dangerous stunts happening all in one giant take would never occur that way in any film being shot but I guess so what, right? It’s pretty cool to watch with a lot of explosions and some damn impressive stunts which, after all, is what the whole idea of this film is paying tribute to anyway.
Looking at it now, HOOPER (story by Walt Green & Walter S. Herndon, Screenplay by Thomas Rickman and Bill Kirby) plays like a carefree portrayal of working-class people in the L.A. area living it up in a way that may be slightly more upmarket than EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (also 1978, also Warner Bros.) but it still feels like it wouldn’t be too out of place for either film’s lead character to suddenly turn up in the other. Come to think of it, why didn’t Burt Reynolds ever make a movie with an orangutan? Since it all drifts along without any real conflict beyond Hooper’s own stubborn nature (refusing to quit despite the damage he’s doing to his body) and no real bad guys (Roger Deal and the first AD are more pricks than anything, though the director’s insistence on getting the big stunt no matter what does bring the later TWILIGHT ZONE-THE MOVIE to mind) it would be nicer if it all made more of an impression, if a few more things of consequence could actually happen. Jan-Michael Vincent was the rising young star at the time and Ski gets a big build up like he’s going to be some sort of antagonist but he just winds up getting along with everyone. Sally Field doesn’t seem to be in the movie for any reason other than she and Reynolds were an item at the time but it’s interesting to note that her own stepfather was legendary stuntman Jock Mahoney who is pretty obviously the model for Brian Keith’s character. All this only adds to some sort of autobiographical feel to it but it doesn’t seem to say much about anything except that these people all like each other. They aggravate a cop while driving up the PCH (“I don’t believe I was going over 55.” “You were going over 55 backwards!”), annoy another cop with a rocket car on the same stretch of road later on after drinking a few beers, get into a bar fight (of course) after which everyone who’s been throwing punches winds up drinking more beer together, they muse about the younger guys coming up in the stunt game with ‘pocket calculators’ to help do their jobs. There’s so much beer consumed throughout that I feel like I should be drinking some while I write this to get me in the proper mood. Oh, and Burt does that laugh of his a lot. It’s also inconsistent at times, with fairly believable serious developments that make us believe how dangerous some of this stuff really is mixed in alongside some goofiness that feels a little out of place. But what happens never becomes too dramatic and everyone eventually just goes back to hanging out, friends forever and, in its defense, it is a pretty hard movie to dislike.
It’s a nice, easygoing film, willing to just lounge around through various scenes like Burt lounges around in nothing but his briefs at one point. There’s not even much all that wrong with it. There certainly isn’t any of that nobody-cares vibe that something like STROKER ACE has that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but it’s all a little too minor even for just a movie that doesn’t want to be much more than hanging out with some likable characters. In making this film Needham seems to acknowledge that there’s no reason these stuntman do what they do beyond just the fun of doing it (The Bandit and CANNONBALL’S J.J. McClure seem to display similar worldviews regarding what they do as well). “Is that why you did it all, for the good times?” asks Ski at one point, and any suggestions he makes that there are deeper reasons pretty much get ignored. It’s as if Hal Needham wanted use this opportunity to say something significant about his beloved profession, then partway through making the movie he decided he didn’t really need to so in the end it doesn’t resonate all that much. The film Needham made might be a personal statement about his approach to life but he either doesn’t have all that much to say about it or he can’t express these things as well as he did in SMOKEY where he shows just how great it can be out there on the road, driving faster than anyone else and just, well, living.
Burt is Burt, every inch the star we want him to be while watching this and totally comes off as a likable guy who loves doing what he's good at. Maybe he doesn't make the movie into anything more than it is, but he still totally sells Hooper as a guy who wishes he could be the best at what he does forever and one who'd be a lot of fun to share a case of beer with. Maybe his best moment is when, chewing gum while listening to a doctor discuss his precarious physical state, he blows a very large bubble which fizzles when he learns how bad things are. Plus it’s pretty cool to see the stunts that the totally committed actor himself actually does take part in, like when he gets thrown out of a window during the bar fight. Noticing a touch like that I couldn’t help but imagine the star having fun while working the bit out with the real stunt guys and the feel of camaraderie presented here comes off as totally believable. Despite the buildup before he’s introduced Jan-Michael Vincent never really gets the chance to come off as a younger version of Hooper or even some sort of friendly rival. It almost feels a little like the actor himself didn’t blow anyone away on set either—ultimately he’s just another guy who’s in the movie with Burt. Sally Field gets to be the concerned girlfriend, the one serious voice in all the craziness but she still doesn’t do all that much beyond providing a continuation of their SMOKEY pairing. John Marley has some solid moments as the film’s producer, Brian Keith brings some real weight to his old-timer role but I kept thinking about how James Best of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD quietly gives the film’s most genuinely relaxed performance as Hooper’s best friend and assistant. In this breezy context it comes off as a more natural, grounded take on the Jerry Reed/Dom DeLuise/Jim Nabors role and with the actor occasionally tossing his Jimmy Stewart impression into scenes he adds to the hangout feel maybe more than anyone else in the movie. A few familiar faces from other Reynolds-Needham entries like George Furth (as the ASPCA guy who hits Burt with his hat) and Terry Bradshaw turn up at various points as well.
The good vibes keep up all the way to the end but unlike the characters the movie doesn’t really pull off the final stunt where the rocket car has to jump over a massive gorge a bridge has just been destroyed in the film being shot—there are too many cuts for it to be all that convincing (some of it might be model work too) unlike the bridge jump forty minutes into SMOKEY that cements once and for all just how cool the Bandit is. It’s almost an indication of how the fun times in this movie just couldn’t continue—not only would these guys get too sloppy with their own films (seriously, have you tried watching SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II recently?) but summer movies in general by now have become not about the cool stuff the characters were doing (and the stunts that showed them doing it) but more about an overall oppressive nature, draining all the fun out of everything to the point where it’s all one giant pulsing mass of sound and fury. In 3D. But back in the day when they made this movie none of that was a concern. The final image seems to tell us, without reservation, Hooper’s gonna be ok. Burt’s gonna be ok. Maybe it was more complicated than that in real life, but it’s a nice thought to go out on.