Note: Technically this is the 7th event of Tarantino's March Madness however it is only the 4th event I've attended. I missed the "Crack House" and "Redneck Miller" double bill, the night of Ralph Bakshi with "Coonskin" and "Hey Good Lookin'," as well as the first midnight feature of March Madness, "Shame of the Jungle."
There to introduce the double feature was Quentin Tarantino. Beyond enthusiastic Tarantino explained why he felt these two films were such honest protrayals of the South. These films not only illustrated a bitter resentment and still brewing racism within the South but also showed the authentic lifestyle to the more average southerner. The cars, the liquor and most certainly the women. Portraits that played up the seedy side of things throughout the South.
The trailers shown ahead of the double bill were actual coming attractions for a few of next week's events during March Madness. Ahead of "White Lightning" was "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and "Blume in Love" which play this Sunday and Monday March 13th and 14th. Before "The Last American Hero" was "Drive-In" and "Dazed and Confused." They both play next Friday and Saturday March 18th and 19th. Also shown were trailers for upcoming midnight features "Pretty Maids All In A Row" and "Friday." 'Maids' runs Friday and Saturday March 18th and 19th while "Friday" will screen once on Friday March 25th. Seeing these trailers helped to set my mood for the upcoming shows. I already have tickets for each of these and they all look to be worth the price of admission not to mention a riot to see with the New Beverly crowd.
At its core "White Lightning" is a simple eye-for-an-eye revenge flick. Gator McKlusky's (Burt Reynolds) brother is murdered by a local sheriff (Ned Beatty) and he sets out to make him pay for his actions. In order to get close to the Sheriff, Gator must begin running booze for bootleggers who work under the not so squeaky clean Sheriff. Very simplistic. The film tries to add another layer by making Gator an ex-con who is working with federal agents to find substantial evidence against the ring of bootleggers, but realistically that entire plot point should have just been thrown out. The film never fully laid out the significance of a respected southern booze runner becoming a stool pigeon. Its mention, but there's no impact felt. Furthermore, Gator is only using it as a means to get what he wants, vengeance for his brother's death.
The cast of "White Lightning" is out of control good. Burt Reynolds is once again a southern charmer. Reynolds always seems to be having a good time and who wouldn't be when your constantly behind the wheel of fast cars or with attractive women throwing themselves at you? One thing about Reynolds that has always been endlessly endearing about him is that laugh. God bless him and that heckling laugh. He's done it for years, its practically his trademark and it never gets old for me. In all of Reynolds' best films he's got someone great to work with. Here that person is Bo Hopkins playing Roy Boone. Hopkins is the steady to Reynolds goofiness. Hopkins is just an ultra-badass here even with Reynolds constantly trying to up stage and one-up him. Ned Beatty, Diane Ladd and Jennifer Billingsley all add to the southern flavor of the action-drama as well. Beatty is particularly shifty in the role of the tough as nails Sheriff. The downside to his role is you know from the get-go that Sheriff J.C. Connors has met his match in Gator McKlusky. It is obvious from their first scene together that Gator will get the best of the Sheriff. Knowing that the Smokey and the Bandit films came after "White Lightning" it almost seems that someone thought (probably Reynolds) lets make a comedy-action based off the dynamic relationship between the Sheriff and Gator in 'Lightning.' The 'Bandit' movies are essentially the mainstream versions of White Lightning.
If you are running booze you are going to need a fast car and the car(s) in "White Lightning" along with the stunts they are put through are what make the film so memorable. Sure Reynolds is Burt Reynolds and this film probably stirred the creation pot for more characters of its nature, but it is the driving and cars that make this flick lasting. Just all and all righteous chases and driving sequences. I must cede that all of the said chase/driving sequences are all grounded with Reynolds and his southern charm bleeding through the windshield as the focal point. Having never seen this before it was crazy to think how many shows/movies I'd seen that are drenched in the same subject matter. Shows and movies that thrive on fast American cars out running the police or attackers. One of my favorite childhood shows, The Dukes of Hazard immediately came to mind watching the 1973 Joseph Sargent film. There is plenty of high octane driving on small country windy roads with hairpin turns, cars jumping and crashing all which kept me puckered and white knuckled with excitement.
Seeing "White Lightning" in my 30's is pretty odd because so many of the films I watched growing up starring Burt Reynolds are directly influenced by this movie. This film is his essentially the beginning of the driving characters he is known for i.e. the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy as well as the Cannonball Run films. There's also the quasi sequel to White Lighting "Gator" and the awful film he made with his one time wife Loni Anderson "Stroker Ace." All of those films outside of Gator I'd seen before watching 'Lightning' and the influence is plain as the mustache on Burt Reynolds face.
Jeff Bridges plays Junior Jackson a southerner whose father is arrested for running illegal booze in a dry county. In order to help pay the bills for his mother and lawyer fees for his father, Junior begins racing for money. Throughout the film Junior faces various struggles and dilemmas but the overall importance illustrated is his dedication to bettering his family through legal means. Instead of just continuing to run liquor, he finds a legal way of keeping a roof over his mother's head. The film also has a very strong message of kinship and friendship. Looking out for the people closest to you. Junior throughout the film makes a point to always include his crew in any deals that come his way as he gains stature throughout the racing brackets. I really connected with the overall sense of respect and honor that was trying to be conveyed through Junior's actions.
It helps that Junior Jackson is Jeff Bridges. Bridges is fabulous in the role. He is beyond cocky and charming at the same time. Junior knows damn well how good of a driver he is and he's got no reason to hide it even if he is in over his head at times. Bridges fully embodied the character and for not being a true southerner, Bridges actually does a polished job of coming across like a good ole' boy. More than anything Bridges just works behind the wheel of a car. There are certain people that just pull off being behind the wheel so charismatically and Bridges is one of those guys. The rest of the cast is also fully loaded. Ned Beatty, Gary Busey, Ed Lauter, Lane Smith, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Valerie Perrine all shine. The cast more than anything feels natural. There is a lot of "oh my look who it is" factor to this film, but everyone feels completely genuine.
The one avenue the film that does struggle is the circuit racing. Much of the highway race sequences with Junior running booze and fleeing the authorities are beautifully shot and full of intoxication but the track racing failed to generate any real thrill. Never does the viewer get any real grasp of the racing going on or the danger they are under. Too many closed in shots of the drivers from the front windshield or the driver's side window. Nothing pulled back and very few full frame shots of the entire track as the cars circled. We would see cars trade position but there was never any reference shots to let us know the stakes or where the drivers were in terms of the other vehicles. There was also very little energy to the circuit races. Having seen films that post-date "The Last American Hero," films that do such a better job of capturing the energy of stock car racing it was hard to stay compelled during moments of the races. That said, watching all that American muscle on the big screen was too good to really walk away upset or disappointed. On the positive side of things, the demolition derby sequence was a whole lot of fun and really gave the audience something to cheer about.
A final note about both "White Lightning" and "The Last American Hero" I really loved seeing two true American Hollywood icons Burt Reynolds and Jeff Bridges in starring roles driving Ford vehicles. Both Gator and Junior drove Ford and boy did they ever drive them well. Yes, I am a Ford man and seeing my favorite American car company in 35mm revving all over the place for nearly five hours at the New Beverly was a priceless memory. Thanks.
Quentin Tarantino's March Madness continues throughout the rest of the month. Check the New Beverly's website for full details and times. Also stay tuned for more coverage of March Madness as I will be continuing to do write-up's on the rest of the events scheduled. You can also check out my previous coverage to March Madness with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.