Riding The Mustache: GATOR
“Oh shit, WHITE LIGHTNING is my favorite movie and I just heard there’s a part two coming out directed by Burt Reynolds himself!”
If that was you, I wonder what it was like to sit down and watch GATOR, a film released three years after WHITE LIGHTNING but taking place in an entirely different universe. Obviously, Reynolds has a mustache in this one, but that doesn’t mean anything. A guy can grow a mustache in three years. John Steadman is back as Gator’s dad, Skeeter, but Iris Korn is missing as Ma. Okay, a ma can die in three years. Burt Reynolds doesn’t sweat as much, but dudes can get operations where they don’t sweat as much in three years.
But Gator also has a nine-year-old daughter, Suzie. And much as I bend my suspension of disbelief, I just don’t see how a guy can grow a nine-year-old in three years. On top of that, Gator spent his time between films getting back in and back out of prison, which definitely cuts into your kid-growing time. So GATOR isn’t exactly worried about being a follow-up to WHITE LIGHTNING. Maybe that’s for the best. Watching Gator interact with his daughter (while also eating eggs and playing with a puppy) is a lot of fun. I wish she were in it more.
In other words, welcome to GATOR, a film that makes zero sense but is a blast anyway. Compared to WHITE LIGHTNING, this is a Disney film. And yet it’s not quite at that Hal Needham level of Southern silliness. Basically everyone is playing JW Pepper, but there’s also a lady who runs into a burning house to save her cats and never escapes. It’s tonally wild, but I suppose that’s part of the fun, though sometimes it gets pretty gross.
For all the changes, the story remains mostly the same. The law arrives on Gator’s swamp porch (after a long, fun, and completely superfluous boat chase) in the form of Jack Weston’s Irving Greenfield, threatening to put Gator’s dad in jail and daughter in an orphanage if he doesn’t help him take down Bama McCall, a major criminal played by Jerry Reed. Now I know young Bo Hopkins is his own man in front of God and everybody in WHITE LIGHTNING, but he also seems like Jerry Reed Lite. GATOR gives us the real deal, and of course a narrative theme song to go with. He’s super evil in this one: pimping kids, extorting poor folks for protection money, and shooting people with the most sawed-off shotgun I’ve ever seen.
GATOR is a pretty racist movie, and because its racism often comes in the form of jokes rather than WHITE LIGHTNING’s cold observation of the South, it feels much more evil from a modern perspective. Burt mostly stays out of it this time, but it’s his film so I’m not sure if that means much. The brunt of it gets aimed at poor Jack Weston, who is a constant punching bag for being a) Jewish and b) from New York City. Remember that commercial where they cowboys hang a guy for having salsa from the big city? This is like that but for a full two hours and it’s ugly. WHITE LIGHTNING felt like visiting a hell hole. GATOR comes from the hell hole and it’s a much different dynamic.
Gator gets in with McCall and starts learning the evil Southern criminal ropes. But he draws the line when it comes to child prostitution, which, I’m not sure that’s how undercover snitching works. This leads to a really great scene where Gator tells McCall he’s out. McCall reacts by drugging Gator’s drink and having him dropped off at the county line, no harm no foul. Not only is Burt’s druggy lunacy great, but it's refreshing to see how McCall truly respects and doesn’t want to kill him.
So with the initial plan scuttled by Gator’s principles, he and his crew decide to instead get McCall with paperwork. This leads to a very different second hour which plays like a romantic comedy between Burt Reynolds and Lauren Hutton as they steal tax documents and play with cats. This section has the least amount of action, but the highest concentration of charm. It ends kind of suddenly when Jerry Reed blasts Jack Weston twice in the chest with his shotgun, but you gotta meet GATOR on its own terms.
It all wraps up quickly, with a remarkable ‘70s stunt in which “Burt” gets thrown from the cab of a crashing truck. It’s so fast and brutal. You see the stunt performer get thrown, land, and stand back up all in the same shot. Burt then beats Jerry Reed through a series of beachfront carnival structures before slamming a door on his face. I love it.
Speaking of loving things, GATOR ends on a note I didn’t expect at all. The day is won and Gator tells his new lady that he wants her to meet his daughter. He’s clearly smitten. But, she’s been offered a job she can’t refuse in the big city. This isn’t that love ‘em and leave ‘em stuff we’re used to, but a female rejection, right after Gator starts the process of bringing her permanently into his life. There’s even a weird liberal slant as a heartbroken Gator admits, “I learned a lot from you.” It ends with him telling her “I love you.” She responds, “I know.” Fuck you, STAR WARS, Burt was there first.
While WHITE LIGHTNING is a much harder film, it’s easy to enjoy Burt Reynolds dialing up his charm like this, especially before going overboard a year later with SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. He’s so likable and then vulnerable and has this amazing instinct to surround himself with cute animals. I prefer my Burt Reynolds violent and mean, but this works too.