As I mentioned in my earlier post about Hal Needham’s 1982 cult classic Megaforce, film fans tend to forget that Smokey and the Bandit was the #2 box office champ behind Star Wars in the year 1977. In many ways it was just as influential on the popular culture of the time as was George Lucas’s monster hit. It prompted significant attention to CB radio culture (which would be featured in many other movies to follow), inspired successful television programs (e.g. Dukes of Hazzard), launched musical hits (e.g. Jerry Reed’s East Bound and Down), and of course made the Pontiac Trans-Am a very hot item. Consequently, it was no surprise that Hollywood tried to exploit the franchise for all it was worth. Smokey and the Bandit II followed in 1980 and was an adequate second outing, if not anything special (despite the presence of Dom Deluise and an elephant). However, by the time 1983 rolled around, pop culture had moved on to interests other than these good ol’ boy car chase films, and Smokey and the Bandit 3 would not be welcomed with open arms.
While it would be easy for me to write about the popularity and importance of the first two films, personally I have always found the third one to be the most fascinating. This is not because it is some misunderstood/lost classic, but due to the fact that it is one of THE legendary Hollywood disasters. You know others that belong to this list: Xanadu, Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Howard the Duck, Town & Country, Theodore Rex, and even . . . Can’t Stop the Music (forgive me)! These are films that have become synonymous with large scale failure and folly, and therefore are interesting to analyze in terms of where the train left the tracks (although for some it started at the idea level).
With regard to Bandit 3, there’s nothing mysterious about how this project was initiated. Clearly a winning formula had been established, and continuing to capitalize on the tent pole property was a no-brainer. The only problem was that this time around neither Needham or Reynolds were interested in participating (they were busy working on another misguided effort called Stroker Ace . . . which was still probably better than Bandit 3). With dollar signs in their eyes, the studio execs soldiered on despite the loss of their director and star. They somehow managed to lure Jackie Gleason back, most likely because he would finally become the star of the show. Hence the infamous working title, Smokey is the Bandit!
The film was shot with another standard plot of the Enos Brothers betting the hero he couldn’t successfully accomplish some outrageous task (in this case transporting a model shark from Texas to Miami for a restaurant opening). Only this time, they make the bet with Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Gleason), the nemesis of The Bandit. As such, Smokey and The Bandit are one and the same. This development proved confusing to test audiences, prompting the filmmakers to make a drastic change to the film. In an effort to make the plot more palatable/familiar, The Bandit was reinstated in the form of Cledus (Jerry Reed), the sidekick from the first two films. The imaginative authors of the screenplay attributed this to the fact that the real Bandit was unavailable for the mission. Indeed, Reed dons The Bandit’s signature outfit, complete with fake mustache, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, Reed shot his scenes after the film was in the can, and they had to be cut into the existing footage. Not a recipe for success! The end result is a disjointed mess, which must be seen to be believed. And as for Reed . . . well let’s just say he makes a great Cledus.
Needless to say given its problems, the film was an absolute bomb. It grossed well under $6 million at the box office (Smokey and the Bandit II grossed about $70 million), and killed the series (not to mention some acting careers). Reynolds probably had a good laugh about the whole thing, since he appeared for a fleeting (although expensive) cameo ¾ of the way through the film. Of course, the box office returns and effects of Stroker Ace would not see him laughing for long. Although the series had certainly outlived its welcome, it was still a shame to see it go out on such a low note. Leave it to Hollywood to make a sequel so abysmal it actually manages to tarnish the good entries that came before!
Normally, Rob and I would save a film like Bandit 3 for our all-night Schlock-O-Thon, but the opportunity to screen the trilogy was just too tempting. You might think having given such a harsh review to the third entry that there would be nothing to recommend it – nothing could be further from the truth. This isn’t your garden variety bad movie we’re talking about here, this is the stuff of legend! Smokey and the Bandit 3 is outrageous in its awfulness to the point that it induces one’s jaw to drop lower and lower with each passing moment. Witnessing it after seeing the earlier films will provide a rare opportunity to truly appreciate the shocking velocity of the series’ precipitous drop in quality. Actually I don’t even feel comfortable using the word quality in any context when talking about Bandit 3 : )
Nevertheless, don’t let any of my detractions discourage you from experiencing the joyous wonder of what is truly one of the worst films (especially from a respected series) ever made!