When you think of actors closely associated with cars and car movies, names like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise and Paul Walker no doubt spring to mind. But when it comes to the Golden Era of car films – the 1970s – there was no actor who portrayed more drivers of hot vehicles than the late – great Burt Reynolds.
In the years between 1973 and 1984, Reynolds starred in no less than seven, yes seven, films that centered around cars. Burt Reynolds fans will instantly recall The Cannonball Run I and II, Smokey and the Bandit I and II, Stroker Ace, White Lightning and of course, the subject of this month’s edition of “Rob’s Car Movie Review”, Hooper!
After Smokey and the Bandit became the highest-grossing film of 1977 save for Star Wars, Hollywood studios were more than eager to reteam the central figures integral to making it a sleeper hit.
Following a somewhat infamous bidding war within the industry, Warner Brothers Pictures ultimately won out, and packaged Smokey‘s endearing and bankable stars. Burt Reynolds and Sally Field were hired to star in former stuntman turned director, Hal Needham’s pet project which had sat on the back burner for years.
The resulting film, Hooper, was conceived as an homage to professional movie stuntmen and daredevils such as Evel Knievel, who were extremely popular at the time.
Rounding out the cast was an ensemble of top-flight character and supporting actors, including Jan-Michael Vincent, Adam West, Brian Keith, Robert Klein, James Best, and a cameo by NFL star Terry Bradshaw.
Written by seasoned screenwriters Thomas Rickman and Bill Kirby, Hooper tells the story of Sonny Hooper (Reynolds), an aging Hollywood stuntman whose body has long since been paying the price of his vocation.
While doing stunts on a big-budget action flick directed by the pretentious and off-putting Roger Deal (Klein), Sonny begins to question his desire and ability to continue putting his life at risk. His internal struggle is exacerbated by the desire of his live-in girlfriend Gwen (Field) for Sonny to retire and turn his attention to being a rancher and breeder of horses.
While the idea of changing gears is appealing to Sonny, his love for his work as well as a coterie of stuntmen friends who rely on him for employment makes hanging up his spurs difficult.
When a young up-and-coming stuntman, Ski (Vincent) hits the scene and volunteers to do things Sonny himself now hesitates to perform, Sonny realizes he is truly over-the-hill. He decides to take Ski under his wing to perform one last great stunt with the young Turk in tow; one not only unique in film history, but also carries a high probability of lethality.
Hooper is a lighthearted and immensely watchable film, albeit one that tries a bit too hard to capture the magic and scope of Smokey and the Bandit, and thusly falls short of the mark.
The movie is somewhat hobbled by spending too much time examining the over-the-top hijinks perpetrated by the hard-partying Sonny and his cadre of stuntmen and movie professionals, and not enough on cementing and exploring the character interactions in the film.
This is most evident in the case of Sonny’s relationship with Gwen, a character that the screenwriters sadly mailed in. In lieu of being a freewheeling co-conspirator to Sonny such as Field was in Smokey, here she is relegated to being a mere ornament and a foil for Sonny’s dangerous lifestyle. A waste of such a talented Hollywood luminary for sure.
The film also fails to fully establish a tone, often ricocheting between being a campy romp and a sober look at the perils of being a stuntman. Ultimately neither wins out, and the whole film feels uncoalesced and half-baked as a result.
But the majority of folks who gravitate towards this film will probably not give a rat’s you-know-what about any of this. Where the film does deliver as advertised is in its overabundance of intense stunt driving and automobile action.
The four-wheeled star here is (as it was in Smokey) a Pontiac Trans Am. Although this time it’s a ’78 model, in blazing Mayan Red in lieu of black and gold. Powered by a 403 cubic inch V8 engine mated to a 3-speed automatic transmission, the car was outfitted with mag wheels and a mock rocket engine that took up the entire rear portion of the interior.
Sonny and Ski pilot the “Rocket-Am” through a ten-minute-long stunt finale, in which they speed through a town being destroyed by a gigantic earthquake and ultimately attempt the longest jump in film history, when they use the rocket to propel them over a gorge and felled bridge.
During this sequence, close to a hundred cars (sadly some of them quite nice) are demolished in an amazingly coordinated melee which the movie’s real-life stunt crew referred to as “Damnation Alley.”
As for the show-stopping jump, I won’t spoil it by going into undue detail, but suffice to say, look closely and judge for yourself exactly what kind of car actually rocketed across the gorge!
As an aside, the Trans-Am from the film was kept by Reynolds after the film was complete. Upon his passing, it was sold at the Barrett-Jackson auction for $88,000.
Other automotive standouts in the film include a gorgeous red and white 1972 Chevy El Camino, a modded-out 1973 Ford Torino and a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach I.
In spite of its flaws, Hooper is a rollicking and rowdy popcorn film which never fails to entertain. With a few more drafts of the screenplay, it could have been every bit the classic of Smokey and the Bandit was. But as it is, it’s still a fine way to spend a couple of hours of your time. I give Hooper six-and-a-half out of ten pistons.