Written by / 6/02/2012 / 2 Comments / , , , , , ,

BURT REYNOLDS RIDES EARLY IN 'WHITE LIGHTNING'

year: 1973 cast: Burt Reynolds, Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark
After a star-making turn in the groundbreaking DELIVERANCE, this is Burt Reynold's first of many car chase movies. While there are a few cars, there’s only one worthy chase.

Plot centers on a convict whose hippie brother was killed by a crooked small town Sheriff… that’s what everyone suspects including government agents who free Burt’s "Gator McKlusky" from a work camp to go undercover as a freelance moonshiner.

Score: ***
Ned Beatty plays Sheriff J.C. Connors with a crafty seediness more spoken than executed: in one scene he tells an assistant everything he's against (from hippies to communists to "coloreds") so the audience knows more than Gator who, teamed up with Bo Hopkins and reluctant mechanic Matt Clark, runs moonshine while swindling information from locals.

Love interest Jennifer Billingsley is more sexy than interesting and her scenes with Gator are distracting to his real goal, which get lost along the way. And talented character-actors Hopkins and Clark eventually become wallpaper.

The final act has Gator moving in on the Sheriff with vengeful fervor. Since Beatty’s not that formidable a bad guy to begin with, the end results are anticlimactic...

Perhaps if the slowburn dramatic qualities were mixed with breezier action (like Hal Needham would provide years later) this would be a more entertaining ride. And yet Burt Reynolds, prior to his signature mustache and goofy giggle, does a fine job as a hardened convict both vulnerable and tough. And it takes a great actor to make that mixture work.
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2 comments:

  1. For me, yours is an interesting take on White Lightning. At it's core your recommendations on what might have made it better are what I feel made Reynolds' subsequent movies worse.

    I quite like White Lightning precisely because Joseph Sargent directed it and not Hal Needham, situation that gives Lightning those intermittent slow-burn qualities that let Reynolds further inhabit the kind of character he'd begun to tool with in Dan August and begun to master with Deliverance, displaying an attractive mix of volatility and sarcastic charm. This is a character he would eschew before its maturity for the relatively vacuous good-old boy.

    Under Sargent's hand the movie manages to navigate a suffuse Southern ease and melancholy not too unlike popular Southern literature of the decade's preceding it that is missing completely in Reynolds' work for Hal Needham.

    Yet, despite enjoying these aspects of the movie and watching Reynolds navigate them, there's a disparity between how well those moments work for me and how poorly the car-chase elements work in tandem with it.

    I do agree that there is only one truly notable car chase moment in the movie, and for me that would be the one (yours as well?) that ends with Reynolds' car jumping a river-side sand dune and landing securely, but barely, on a departing barge, rear wheels hanging off.

    For the most part (but not all), the remaining car chase moments seem much more infused with that breezy-type action Needham was so fond of; the not-really-all-that-funny frustrations and failures of hammed-up law enforcement officers in pursuit, ridiculously unimpressive and cliched car crashes between cop cars and suddenly rote hoedown music whenever the pedal hits the medal (This last bit about the music is a perfect highlight for the failed thematic disparities - those slow burn and melancholic moments are scored with some pretty great music, infused with rural notions and building suspense - but instead of gritting up the car chases, both in content and score, to culminate the tensions and frustrations Reynolds' character is building - they go completely out-to-lunch).

    What this brings me to - is to lay the blame for this shortcoming in melding the Gator character's escalating anger/discovery with his resulting actions - on Hal Needham himself.

    Hal Needham was the Second-Unit Director on this film and un-credited Stunt Co-Ordinator, so he not only choreographed those car chases but directed them as well. It was his first time at the camera, advised by Reynolds himself as the career move to make after already being the highest-salaried stuntman in Hollywood for his time. This would give him his DGA card and allow him to transcend the glass-ceiling he'd reached as one of the best stunt-coordinator's around and subsequently go on and direct all those breezy Burt Reynolds movies that made boatloads of money for everyone involved, delivered some certain measure of enjoyment, but served to both firmly cement Reynolds' career and then make it redundant when neither knew when to break the flimsy-from-the-start habit.

    Kudos though, to Hal for doing what he damn well did best; he's the very stunt man that jumped that Ford onto the barge, which is one of the ballsiest un-edited vehicle stunts committed to film.

    When I watch this film I actually appreciate that at least Hal Needham DIDN'T direct this one.

    Your final call on Reynolds sits right at home with me, there was a moment there where he was a great actor for sure before he spent so much time undermining himself, squandering talent for big box-office personality. By then there was no way to stop the car, get out, toss the keys over the roof to some lesser B-Grader and walk back home.

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  2. Yeah I hear ya. I only meant that, well, sometimes it was a bit too heavy and didn't always flow the way I wanted, but man you wrote a GREAT comment, a review in itself... Thanks and KEEP doing so!!!

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