Tuesday, November 9, 2010

White Lightning

Now THAT is a movie poster!  It's got it all: guns, fire, a car chase, a woman, jugs of green liquid the size of a man, flying through the air.  I also love the inset picture of Burt Reynolds; it's like the producers saw the movie poster and asked, "But which one is Burt Reynolds?" and they picked out a picture from Tiger Beat.  I am confused by the tag line "White Lightning: Take a Bite and Feel All Right!"  Take a bite of what?  White lightning?  Burt Reynolds?  The green jug?  That just sounds like a rap lyric (judging from the skill of the rhyme, I would have to guess Young MC --- he has more rhymes than the whole damn zoo) more than a line that would actually fit this poster.  However, the other tag line, at the top of the poster, is awesome.  "White lightning never strikes twice --- 'cause once is enough!"  That makes it sound like Burt Reynolds plays White Lightning, a race car driver or something.  Or, it may be a subtle racist jab.  Sure, white lightning can do the job, done in one, but what about black, brown or yellow lightning?  Is this poster implying some sort of superiority based on the color of lightning?  Or maybe "White Lightning" is the title song in this, an Aryan Nation update of Grease!  Ah, the joys of accusing something of unintentional racism...good times.  Side note: kids, racism is bad and stupid. 

Actually, White Lightning refers to moonshine, the illegal homemade liquor that can be delicious and/or used to thin paint.  Our boy Gator (Burt Reynolds) is in the Arkansas (I knew this movie was racist!) pokey, doing time for running moonshine.  He gets word that his brother just died; the police say he drowned (which he did), but everybody knows that Sheriff Connors (Ned Beatty) was responsible for it (which he was).  Gator makes two decisions that day.  The first is to escape prison to take down that dirty, crooked Sheriff; he starts out okay, but the warden unhurriedly brings him back in after only a few minutes.  It was quite the jail break, and I'm very glad that it was captured on film.  The warden was fairly indifferent and the prisoner gave up immediately.  In Spanish, they call that muy divertido.  Wait...does divertido mean "boring as hell"?  I know muy means "Shoot me in the face to stop this from being."  The second decision is to work for the Feds, going undercover to bring Sheriff Connors to justice and take down any dirty backwoods moonshiners that are fueling Connors' crime empire.  What is the best way to do that?  Car chases.  Lots and lots of car chases.  Along the way, Gator comes to understand the value of moonshinin' to the semi-honest backwoods folks of Arkansas and he manages to find love by stealing away his partner's woman (Diane Ladd).

This is a movie that is definitely a product of its times.  I'm not just saying that because Burt Reynolds is in it (with no mustache, but he does chew gum throughout).  You don't often see forty minutes of car chases in movies nowadays.  That is mostly because that was the limit for special effects in the 60s and 70s, but car chase movies, when done right, can be a lot of fun.  This movie has cars jumping off dirt ramps, a car with a Confederate flag on the hood, and a car jumping onto a barge, all in the first chase.  I did appreciate that the filmmakers went out of their way to explain the need for car chases in the movie, but it isn't terribly necessary; Gator is transporting moonshine, so he has to avoid local cops.

The acting is about what you would expect from a Burt Reynolds vehicle.  Basically, Burt gets to be cool and irresistible to women, and everyone else is a chump.  And it's true; Ned Beatty, Bo Hopkins, Diane Ladd all look pretty stupid in this movie.  That's not a terrible thing, unless you're trying to argue that too much money is spent on education in Arkansas, but this is a pretty one-sided affair.  It is worth noting that this is the uncredited film debut of Laura Dern; she has a bit part, but you can spot her.  The direction isn't all that bad.  Joseph Sargent knows that the car chases and Reynold's smirk are what people want to see in this movie, and he certainly delivers.  Honestly, as far as car chase/Burt Reynolds movies go, this is probably the best.

But for those of us that look for more in their movies than cars on dirt roads and Burt Reynolds chewing gum, there are a couple of head-scratching moments.  When Gator makes his first daring car escape by driving his car off a pier and onto a barge, shouldn't the police following him know where the barge is heading?  I would think that it would be a regular trip, or at least one that someone on the docks could help them figure out.  Even if the next bridge was too far away to beat the barge, I bet the police on the other side of the river would be more than happy to pick up Gator as he tries to haul his now undoubtedly damaged car off the boat.  Ned Beatty's character is kind of silly, too.  Sure, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief enough to say that, maybe, a corrupt Sheriff could be "running the entire county," both the law and the crime.  But he makes a speech during the film where he argues that police don't make enough money with their day jobs, so it's only right for them to supplement their money with moonshine; the police make their money and the people get their cheap booze.  Beatty estimates that the average, legally taxed, fifth of liquor costs $7 (well, it is the 70s), but moonshine only costs six bits a gallon!  First off, what the hell is a bit?  Oh, it's twelve and a half cents.  That seems like a fairly arbitrary amount, but whatever, Mirriam-Webster.  More importantly, though, Beatty's argument ignores the car races, public danger, exploding stills, toxic unregulated booze, and murders that are a side effect of this business.  I have no problem with the Sheriff being a corrupted jerk, but that speech was a really inept attempt to give him depth.  Perhaps the biggest middle finger this movie gives to logical thought is the ending.  SPOILER ALERT: So Gator manages to trick the Sheriff into driving his car into a lake, which apparently immediately kills him.  Suspicious, but fine.  Whatever.  Why doesn't Gator get thrown back into jail at the end?  He caused a lot of damage, led to the death of the suspect, and he burned his list of moonshiners because they're good people.  So...the FBI lets him out of prison to build a case and he fails in every way possible, and their response is "enjoy your freedom"?  Really?

Still, you don't turn on a movie like this because you enjoy thinking.  This movie definitely succeeds in its mission to be a car chase movie starring Burt Reynolds.

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