With The Bandit, director Jesse Moss follows up his brilliant and weighty documentary The Overnighters with something a little lighter, but no less brilliant. The documentary follows the friendship of superstar and former stuntman Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, son of a sharecropper turned one of the greatest stuntmen in cinematic history. Their relationship - as friends, coworkers and bachelor pad roommates - is entertaining and inspiring, and The Bandit follows this collaboration through the making of their improbable hit, Smokey and the Bandit.
Stuntmen in the '70s were a rare breed, action heroes in their own right who cheerfully put their lives on the line to make men like Burt Reynolds look good, and no one did it like Hal Needham. Needham's own Hooper delves into the wild, hard-drinking, spleen-busting antics of these fearless cowboys, and The Bandit makes it clear that Hooper - as unlikely as it seems - was not far from reality. They threw back shots, fought all night, fell for a living and "went through a lot of wives," according to one of Needham's disciples, and The Bandit takes us along for the ride.
"I never turned down a stunt," Needham says in an interview with a clearly enamored journalist, and we see some of the stunts that he probably should have turned down play out in The Bandit. Two broken backs, several ruptured organs, countless concussions - none of it slowed down Hal Needham. The audience gasped and winced as we watched these breathless, terrifying stunts, action sequences we've seen dozens of times in Reynolds' most popular films, but this time with the overt acknowledgement that a real human being was performing them, and beating his body to hell to do it.
As unparalleled as Needham was in the world of stunts, he had his eye on much more. After realizing that housekeepers were lifting Coors beer from their personal fridges during the filming of a movie east of Oklahoma, where Coors wasn't currently distributed, Needham sat down to write a script - of sorts - about a Coors bootlegging scheme. "I told him it was the worst script I ever read," Reynolds said, and Needham said he knew. He figured they'd just cast other actors like Reynolds, quick-thinking charmers who could come up with dialogue on the fly.
The script was titled Smokey and the Bandit, and Needham wanted to direct it himself. No one but Reynolds thought he could do it - a colleague said of Needham, who never had much education, "Nice guy, but not a Rhodes scholar" - and least of all the studio execs, but Reynolds used his limitless star power to support his friend. No one was a bigger star than Burt Reynolds in the mid-1970s, the funny and gorgeous hero that men and women wanted to be or bed. Studios would do anything to get a Burt Reynolds picture, and he traded on that cachet to help out his friend, a man every bit as charming, handsome and heroic, lacking only in fame. Reynolds would star in the film and promote it like crazy, but for no one but his best friend Needham.
Universal agreed, but for a paltry budget. Needham said they originally offered $5.3 million, but then a "hatchet man" brought it down to $4.3, and Burt got a million of that sum. The film was projected to make only a million dollars, and preview screenings above the Mason-Dixon line did not return promising results. And then the movie opened in the south - and Smokey and the Bandit became a runaway hit, eventually racking up over $300 million worldwide. Needham became a proven commodity, and went on to direct seventeen other films, many of which starred Reynolds.
As fascinating as you'll find the story of Smokey and the Bandit's production and release, The Bandit is at its best when focusing on the friendship between Reynolds and Needham. Friends and colleagues discuss this friendship between two extremely masculine, impossibly charming rascals, "the closest relationship I ever saw in the picture business," according to one talking head. We learn that Burt, who thought actors were "candy asses," really wanted to be Hal, and that Hal, who craved stardom and respect, wanted to be Burt, but neither man was as good as they were together. Through interviews, behind the scenes outtakes, talk show clips and confessionals, The Bandit shows us time and again that this friendship was one for the ages. It was the stuff of legend, and The Bandit is a funny, delightful examination of that legend.
In speaking to students at The Burt Reynolds Institute in his hometown of Jupiter, Florida, Reynolds said, "When I heard that Hal died, I thought, 'What in God's name could kill him?'" Luckily for all of us, through The Bandit, Needham lives on still.