Slow day today with no headliners, since I decided to check out THE BANDIT over the premiere of Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic, MILES AHEAD, which is screening two more times between now and Sunday. Between the humid, hot weather, my delicious BBQ lunch (Terry Black’s moist brisket is life), and the extended amount of time between my two films, it was a casual, laid-back kinda day in Austin, TX, which was appropriate considering the first movie I saw today:
THE BANDIT, dir. Jesse Moss.
When I was growing up, I had no concept of Burt Reynolds as a movie star, or as anything other than the older supporting actor in stuff like BEAN and BOOGIE NIGHTS. I had no idea he was Charlie in ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN, and when HAPPY GILMORE sees the limo and goes, “Wow, must be Burt Reynolds or something,” I always took it as sarcasm). Today, I can only imagine the notion that Burt Reynolds was, for over a decade, arguably the biggest movie star in the world seems crazy and outlandish to most millennials who’ve grown up on STAR WARS, SNL, JAWS, and more enduring relics from the ‘70s.
But one must recall that SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was, when it came out, the 8th biggest grosser of all time, despite opening against, wait for it, fucking STAR WARS (which, as we know, was numero uno). And BANDIT, as well as five other films over the following 7 years (including SMOKEY II), were all directed by Burt Reynolds best friend, former stunt double, and roommate for 11 years, Hal Needham.
The micro subject of Moss’ documentary for CMT Films is the making of BANDIT, which was Reynolds' biggest film as a lead at the box-office by far (only two films he’s been in have managed to surpass its gross internationally, not counting for inflation: Sandler’s THE LONGEST YARD and bloody BEAN). However, the macro subject, far more interesting, revealing, and moving, is the relationship between Burt and Needham, and their histories as an actor and a stuntman, respectively. Though much has been said about Burt’s sometimes cagey, pompous disposition, he is portrayed here as a guy who, sorta like his character in NICKELODEON, stumbled into the film business and ended up making it, and the rest of the world, his bitch (his '70s pad we're toured through makes Dirk Diggler's house look like Pee-Wee's Playhouse). When Needham’s asked where Burt draws the line on what he can or can’t do, stuntwise, he says, “I don’t think Burt draws the line, he wants to do everything himself. I think the insurance people draw the line.” We see a whole mess of old clips, stills, and behind-the-scenes footage of both Reynolds and Needham thanklessly falling on their ass, sometimes spectacularly, for the sake of whatever project they were working on. Obviously, they both graduated to bigger things, Burt to movie star and Needham to director, but their love, talent, and knowledge for stuntwork carried over to their films together in a huge way.
It’s that love for stuntmen and their craft that won me over more than most congratulatory, victory-lap tribute docs like this, particularly those made for TV. In this era where stuntwork is more of a novelty than a necessity of the production, it’s mind-boggling to see the stuff these shows would manage to pull off with some horses, stuntcars, and some crazy sommbitches to ride them. There were a lot of “Oofs,” and “Oh, fuck!”s coming out of the audience as we see both Reynolds and Needham taking heavy, ridiculous-looking falls that the insurance companies would never let fly today (unless you’re shooting in places like Indonesia or Australia, that is). As we learn about the various injuries they both sustained over the course of their work, listen to Burt equate stuntmen to the jocks of the film set and the ones having the most fun, and hear about how physically resilient and personally ambitious Needham was, it’s hard not to feel deeply awestruck by this underappreciated act. If films like HOOPER and THE STUNT MAN don’t enlighten you about what a mad, brazen profession stuntwork is, then this doc certainly will, and even if you’ve already seen it, you’ll never look at Burt and Needham’s films, particularly SMOKEY I, the same way again.
One major aspect of this film that won me over was its willingness to get into Reynolds and Needham’s insecurities regarding showbusiness. We watch Reynolds, who admits that he was being primed to be the next Brando early on, struggle to defend his “good ol’ boy roles” on TV talk shows, and continuously regret moves like his nude Cosmopolitan centerfold, which he says might’ve cost him an Oscar nom for DELIVERANCE. He decries his own movie choices, and defensively reflects on how hard it is to come off as easygoing like it’s some kind of crime to be perceived as the funniest, most charming guy in the biz. Needham, on the other hand, first has a hard time breaking through as a director after decades of stuntwork, and then, apparently in an effort to catch up to Burt’s level of fame, starts heavily promoting himself via talk shows, high-profile stunts, and even a corny action figure modeled after him. The hypothesis is that Burt secretly wanted to be Hal, and Hal secretly wanted to be Burt, and it digs into their perceived shortcomings much more than I would’ve expected, making you feel like you’ve actually learned something about these guys as people, rather merely as public personas.
Ultimately, it’s their friendship at the heart of the film, and it’s touching to see how openly and often they expressed their love for one another. The show an ad in the trades that Burt specifically bought to congratulate his buddy on SMOKEY’s success; sure, it might’ve been marketing to some degree, but it’s simple and elegant enough to come off as a sincere gesture from a guy to his longtime buddy who knocked it out of the park his first time at bat.
The SMOKEY sections are funny and interesting, as we go through the production in chronological order. There’s some great stuff about Jackie Gleason’s propensity for improvising and scene-stealing, to the point where Burt made the screenwriter cancel a bunch of their scenes together. There’s a tribute to Jerry Reed, his chemistry with Burt (exemplified in some choice outtakes), and his iconic “Eastbound and Down” theme song, as well as Sally Field and her relationship with Burt (whose claim that he insisted on her for the role in SMOKEY is disputed on camera). There’s a healthy amount of interview footage with Little Enos himself, Mr. Paul fucking Williams, rocking an earring even though he's more years on him than Harrison Ford, and who amazingly caps one of his responses with, “That was a great answer.” We see that Universal, then under Sidney Sheinberg, had zero faith in the movie, and were ready to dump it after a failed run in New York. They don't bother to talk about how the studio then proceeded to squeeze the franchise for all it was worth with two more sequels, four TV movies (all directed by Needham), and, as was just announced, a contemporary reboot.
The more I think about it, the more I like this documentary. There’s a sincerity to it, and they don't gloss over some of the less sunny aspects of Burt, Needham, and SMOKEY as both a project and as a phenomenon (I was impressed one particular implication about drug use made it into the final cut). The emphasis on stuntmen, their mentality, and the bone-breaking nitty-gritty of what they do (the footage of Needham tearing up upon receiving a lifetime achievement Oscar is heartbreaking when you think about how vehemently they refuse to give out awards for achievement in stuntwork) is super-novel, and mega-welcome now that CGI action is so prevalent. There’s a lot of unspoken drama in seeing Burt, both then and now, with the knowledge of how high he’s risen, how low he’s sunken, and everything in between; just cutting from his lively TONIGHT SHOW appearances to him using a cane to walk says more about the temporal fleetingness of being a sex symbol than any amount of interviews possibly could’ve. That they actually devote time to NAVAJO JOE, WHITE LIGHTNING, DELIVERANCE, HOOPER, and AT LONG LAST LOVE (with a couple of peeks at Needham with his THE VILLAIN star, Arnold Schwarzenegger) just wins me over all the more, even if I would've liked to have seen some acknowledgement of at least the first SMOKEY sequel. There’s a couple of surviving folks I would’ve liked to have seen in there, such as Ned Beatty, Field, or even Loni Anderson, but between the archival footage, the interviews, both new and old, and the immense love and respect for stuntwork on display, there’s more than enough here to make catching this an absolute prerogative for fans of Burt, Needham, or SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.
I AM A HERO, dir. Shinsuke Sato.
It’s been years since the wave of zombie-related content crashed and rolled back, and it’s tricker than ever to bring a fresh perspective to the genre. The comedy thing’s been done (ex. SHAUN OF THE DEAD), the tragedy thing’s been done (ex. MAGGIE), they’ve run (28 DAYS LATER), they’ve stumbled (THE WALKING DEAD), and they’ve been killed in nearly every way your mind can possibly imagine (you ever play DEAD RISING? The weapon combos are endless). So when I say that the biggest crime of I AM A HERO is that it doesn’t double down on its one inspired original concept, I hope you can appreciate how severe a crime that really is. Too bad, because the film is actually well-executed (ha) and fun, with some killer zombie-killin’ action and more than a few excellent gags.
Hideo (“spelled with the character for ‘hero’”) is a manga artist with a shy personality, a fed up girlfriend, and a big-ass shotgun (for fun; he’s licensed and everything). His lady finally kicks him out, saying he’s going nowhere, but the next day, she calls him over begging for his forgiveness. When he gets there, however, she’s a contorting, dead-eyed beast, and it becomes clear that the mysterious news reports about infections and bite-crazy madmen are heralding the zombie apocalypse. Hideo manages to escape the city, alongside a young girl, and the two head for Mount Fuji, where allegedly the zombie virus (dubbed ZQN) cannot survive due to the high altitude.
The set-up is great, though with considerable overlaps with SHAUN: Hideo’s a thankless, 30-ish worker whose girlfriend kicks him out for not having any ambition, who then stumbles out into the world without really realizing what’s going on, and finally turns out to have a talent for killing the undead. There’s one extended bit of mayhem in the city streets that leads to a pretty terrific car chase, and for a minute, it seems that the movie is going to keep this frenetic pace going to the end. But then, sure enough the film stops stealing from SHAUN and starts going into an amalgamation of 28 DAYS LATER and DAWN OF THE DEAD, with Hideo stumbling upon an outdoor outlet mall with a host of violent, fascistic survivors. There’s a mission that constitutes the climax of the film, and it’s a pretty solid stretch of zombie mayhem, but by that point, the film has blown too many chances at transcendence, has gone on too long, and loses the opportunity to make Hideo’s arc anything truly touching.
But the worst offense of all, which I alluded to earlier, is the mishandling of one particularly excellent idea. There’s a character who is bitten by a zombie, but due to bizarre circumstances, does not completely turn, but rather becomes a sort of BLADE zombie: all of their strengths (invulnerability, super-strength), and none of their weaknesses (thirst for blood, lack of motor skills). There’s set-up for a back half that allows this character to go full-on crazy against the zombie hordes, but tragically, the stakes boil down to whether Hideo can use his big-ass gun to save two damsels in distress. Now, I’m not saying there’s not a movie in a slacker rising to the occasion to protect his lady from a zombie invasion (in fact, someone already made that into one of my favorite films). But when the notion of this badass, take-no-shit zombie bodyguard comes up, and then is cast aside for some typical macho heroics, it’s a massive, massive letdown. I know certain types of Japanese movies tend to elude predictability like a motherfucker, and quite often have set-ups that purposefully lead to dead ends, but this was something that seemed exciting and fresh enough to singlehandedly make this stand apart from the films it borrows so heavily from. I’m sure if you see it, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
There’s always some sort of social commentary in zombie films, and here, it’s class-related; Hideo is cast aside for bigger name artists at his job, and is considered a loser for not worshipping advancement. Most of the first zombies we see are uniformed municipal types, cops, mailmen, train workers, etc. The businessmen types are portrayed as assholes, and there’s a running joke about Rolexes with a payoff that made my audience applaud. The fact that the mall the survivors now hole up in is an outlet mall is a cute little differentiation from the plot point’s obvious source. It’s just present enough to have an impact without being too overbearing.
There are a lot of things to like about this movie. There’s a great use of the age-old device where we see Hideo do something crazy and out of character before we realize that he’s just imagining it, leading to a late bit that's pretty damn unrestrained and hilarious. An early scene has a character viciously beating a zombie’s brains in with a baseball bat, and saying, “In the U.S., it would’ve only taken one shot!” The girlfriend attack is immaculately executed, with disgusting contortions galore and one clever touch: she breaks her teeth on the door, so when she bites Hideo, she has no teeth left to puncture his skin, and he survives. But the film goes on too long, has a major lull in the middle section, and doesn’t capitalize on its most original, brilliant idea. It’s too derivative to be truly awesome, despite the carnage, and ultimately, I wanted to like it more than I did.
Still, Shinsuke Sato seems to know what’s up in terms of executing big action scenes and slapstick comedy, so his name is one I’ll be on the lookout for from now on.