SXSW Review: The Bandit

Burt Reynolds (left) and Hal Needham (right) are the subjects of the new CMT documentary "The Bandit" which premiered at SXSW (Courtesy: CMT Films/Mile End Films)

The 1970s were a unique time for entertainment, if only because never before and never since have southern-fried adventures featuring stuntmen, truckers and CB radios been such lucrative moneymakers for big Hollywood studios.

There were lots of options for fans of all of those three genres, but the epitome of the phenomenon is arguably "Smokey and the Bandit," a modern redneck classic of a film conceived and directed by a stuntman featuring truckers bootlegging Coors beer (!) into Georgia who use CB radios to evade the police. The relationship between that stuntman-turned-director, Hal Needham, and the star of the film, Burt Reynolds, is the subject of "The Bandit," a documentary produced by CMT that premiered at SXSW 2016.

Before "Smokey and the Bandit," Needham was notable not just because he was Reynolds' stunt double, but a bonafide star in his own right a la Evel Knievel, making the rounds on the unbelievably numerous talk shows of the day and boasting a toy made in his likeness. Reynolds, already a star after "The Longest Yard" and "Deliverance," was a heartthrob who may have torpedoed any chance of being a serious actor after posing nude on a bearskin rug in a 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Director Jesse Moss focuses the doc on how these two incredibly close best friends--Needham spent years living in Reynolds' guest house, even as Reynolds became a superstar--were two sides of the same hell-raising coin, and out of that friendship was born a good-ol'-boy classic. Forgoing voiceover narration to guide the viewer, Moss instead tells his story with newly-shot interviews with Reynolds and archival footage of Needham (who died in 2013), weaving together a narrative of how these two outlaws turned a moderately-budgeted, deeply Southern B-movie with a cool sports car that the studio saw as a financial risk into a massive hit, with a box office take second only to "Star Wars" in 1977.

Like a bootlegging run with the Bandit himself, "The Bandit" at times can be an exhilarating ride down a well-worn country road in your dad's old sports car he only takes out on special occasions these days: you've done it a million times, sure, but there's always a smile on your face when it's over.

  • Grade: B+
  • Starring: Burt Reynolds, Hal Needham
  • Directed by: Jesse Moss ("The Overnighters")

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