SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT - HD DVD review

I had high hopes for the HD-DVD release of the Burt Reynolds / Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am classic, but the technical capabilities of the VC-1 mastered title fell short.

DeanWink

Some might consider my great enthusiasm upon the arrival of "Smokey and the Bandit" on HD-DVD as a pure sign of insanity. The sudden desire to throw on a light colored cowboy hat, my red button down shirt and take off in my T-Top equipped F-body with "East Bound and Down" forever looping could be further evidence that I've lost what marbles I still retain. The possibility does exist that I am not insane and that my deep seated love of Hal Needham's 1977 Burt Reynolds film is built from genuine affection for the film and it is purely normal for somebody to enjoy a little action film where one of the main stars was a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Maybe I am a little touched, or maybe this film that I've known for nearly all my life is one of those odd pictures that I can watch time and time again and always enjoy it. Whether it is the sight of Burt Reynolds behind the wheel of the iconic American muscle car or the vocals of Jerry Reed's memorable theme song, I never turn down a reason to watch this thirty year old movie.

Burt Reynolds is Bo Danville; the Bandit. He is a man known for his legendary skill in truck driving and never backing down from a challenge. One day he is approached by Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick) and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams) and asked to illegally deliver Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta at a time when it was not allowable to transport Coors outside of its geographical limits. The catch is that the Bandit is asked to do so in only twenty eight hours. He aggress to do so, but only if they provide him with a fast car, the infamous 1977 Pontiac Trans Am, and the aid of a friend and partner, Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed). With the Snowman and his Basset hound Fred behind the wheel of the hulking truck carrying the beer and the Bandit driving interference against the police in the Firebird, their chances of meeting the Burdette's challenge is cutting it close, but also very risky.

The law is not the only obstacle that the Bandit and the Snowman run into during their high speed trek across the Southern United States. Along the way, the Bandit picks up a runaway bride named Carrie (Sally Field) that is running away from her fiancé Junior (Mike Henry). To make matters worse, the Bandit catches the ire of a local sheriff, Junior's father Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Sheriff Justice doesn't stop his torrid and hot pursuit of the Bandit after county lines are crossed. Capturing the infamous driver becomes quite personal and the chase lasts all the way to Atlanta with Buford vowing the capture that sum-bitch, the Bandit. The Bandit and the Snowman are a potent team in their own right, but also on the Bandit's side are legions of truck drivers who are familiar with his legend and his exploits and they are always willing to aid their hero out of a bind with the Sheriff and his beat up car narrowly missing capture of the wily Bandit.

"Smokey and the Bandit" is an action film and it is a comedy. It is a road film with a tremendous amount of entertainment value. Jackie Gleason is a timeless comedian and his attachment to the "Smokey and the Bandit" franchise of films was a testament to his ability at sidesplitting physical comedy. Burt Reynolds was one of Hollywood's biggest names during the late Seventies and his role as the "Bandit" became his trademark performance. The romantic elements between Fields and Reynolds work nicely and Reeds and Reynolds made for a believable pair of close friends. Whereas Gleason and Reynolds commanded the screen with their performances, the supporting cast held the road nicely. Not to be overlooked is the V8 powered F-Body. I am on my third Chevrolet Camaro and I'm not sure that the decision to buy my '99 Z/28 wasn't rooted in my original enjoyment of this film as a child. It isn't black and it isn't the sister F-Body Firebird, but it is as close as you can get. I don't know what I'd do without my big rear-wheel drive V8 powered muscle car. After owning them for sixteen years, it wouldn't feel right. I'm pretty sure my first love of the F-Body family of cars came from watching this film.

I can watch this film without hesitation and I've seen it over a dozen times in my life. The car chases are spectacular and credit needs to go to veteran stunt man / writer and director Hal Needham for creating "Smokey and the Bandit" and making its exciting car chases as memorable as they are. Fused with Jerry Reed's all-too-familiar song, the third and final chase sequence is one of the best car scenes in Hollywood history. It was the second highest grossing film of 1977 after a little space epic. This film still finds itself as an object of pop culture nearly thirty years later for good reason. There is Burt Reynolds and "Smokey and the Bandit" references in the currently popular "My Name is Earl," with the Trans Am making an appearance on the show. This is one of those movies that strikes a chord and combines a fun story with a lot of worthwhile on screen moments. Reynolds and Gleason were great in this one and I'm still quite happy to have an updated copy of the film on HD-DVD. And yes, I have driven with the T-Tops off and "East Bound and Down" blaring through the car speakers on at least one occasion.

Video:
Life is not all roses with this release of "Smokey and the Bandit." The picture quality of this 1.85:1 VC-1 encoded film is not a tremendous improvement over the previous standard definition DVD release. While exhibiting a noticeable amount of improved detail, the coloring is only marginally better. Additionally, the film is heavily ridden with film grain and has a few scenes when the black levels are nowhere near strong enough. I was disappointed with the visual quality of this release, as it is a release I have looked forward to since the day it was announced. I'll surely watch this version of the film over the standard definition DVD release, but with upconverting capabilities, there is not a lot of improvement between the two releases. The Bandit's trademark red shirt is bright and there is no bleeding between the red and background images. The details on the Snowman's truck stand out ever so slightly more and you can easily read the boxes of Coors contained in the back of the truck. This is not a horrible transfer, but it is certainly one of the weaker efforts by Universal.

Sound:
There has been a lot of controversy over the soundtracks of "Smokey and the Bandit" since the most recent release of the film on DVD. Apparently, the newly remastered 5.1 soundtrack for the standard definition update featured all new sounds that replaced the original sounds and sent fans in an uproar. The best I could do for comparison was a horrible sounding VHS copy, so I'm going to avoid making any statements as to the authenticity of the sounds contained on the HD-DVD disc. They sound quite similar to the standard definition DVD, but with a slightly cleaner presence.

The English Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack is the only available option on the HD-DVD release of "Smokey and the Bandit." It is an upgrade of similar quality to the standard definition release. When you compare the old DVD through a normal player and put it up against the HD-DVD release, there is no question that the new disc is better. However, when looking at the old DVD through an upconvert player, the difference is minimal. The soundtrack is better, a good DVD player helps out the older release and narrows the gap. Sound is clear. Dialogue is great, but Jerry Reed's songs on the HD-DVD still do not have the power to crank them up and rock the block.

Extras:
The "Smokey and the Bandit" HD-DVD release contains the same supplements released on the special edition DVD from May of last year. Both the Loaded Up and Truckin': The Making of Smokey and the Bandit and Snowman, What's Your 20? – The Smokey and the Bandit CB Tutorial supplements have been ported over. Neither supplement is terribly exciting, but the "Loaded Up and Truckin'" feature has a few nice pieces of information shared between director Hal Needham and star Burt Reynolds. Paul Williams helps out in this feature. There was some historical importance to the film's story and Needham's own experiences and this was nicely pointed out. The second supplement is a look at CB communications through the aid of a real trucker. While somewhat interesting, it was short and more forgettable than anything else. Where were the Jerry Reed interviews or Pontiac Firebird Trans Am stunt footage?

Closing Thoughts:
I love this movie. I really do. I had high hopes for the HD-DVD release of the Burt Reynolds / Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am classic, but the technical capabilities of the VC-1 mastered title fell short. Perhaps my hopes were that "Smokey and the Bandit" would be as visually stunning as "The Searchers," but it was only a marginal upgrade over the previous release. I still enjoyed the update and this is certainly the best way to watch Reynolds outfox Gleason. The features are a nice addition, but nothing to write home about. If you own the original Special Edition DVD, then there is hardly any great reason to spring for this release. You are getting essentially the same release with a slightly higher resolution and not much additional clarity. I would assume it was mastered from the same source and this is a high quality port and not a fresh release.

Ratings

Video
5
Audio
6
Extras
4
Film Value
5