Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 already has a strike against it as soon as the title hits the screen. It commits what I consider a cardinal sin when it comes to movie sequels…it switches the numerals. 1980’s Smokey and the Bandit Part II utilizes roman numerals to indicate it being the second chapter in the saga. However, the third installment, released in 1983, switches to arabic numerals. I hate it when they do that! In fact, I hate that even more than when they try to do a sequel without the two main leads of the previous films bothering to return, which they do in this film, too. It’s not Smokey and the Bandit Part III, it’s Smokey and the Bandit Part 3.
This time the story centers on the villain of the last two films, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Despite having never been able to catch the Bandit, Sheriff Justice has decided it is time to retire. So, after a Patton-esque ceremony, he and his son, Junior (Mike Henry) head down to Florida. The Sunshine State doesn’t agree with the pair, though, so the Sheriff decides to accept a bet from those troublemakers Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and Little Enos (Paul Williams).
Their challenge to Justice is to drive from Florida to Texas by 5:00 the following afternoon carrying a large stuffed fish on top of the car to advertise a new seafood restaurant. Succeed and the Sheriff gets $250,000, fail and Big and Little get his badge. Bufford and Junior take off and, of course, have a bit a hard time getting going, but soon are heading down the road. In an effort to keep Buford from succeeding, Big and Little decide the Sheriff needs a distraction. But, with the Bandit nowhere to be found, they recruit his formed partner, Snowman (Jerry Reed), who gives up his big rig and gets behind the wheel of the black Trans Am. Along the way he picks up a girl named Dusty (Colleen Camp) and the two cause a bunch of car crashing trouble for the Sheriff.
This is a film with a bizarre history. When it was realized that Burt Reynolds was not wanting to come back for a third film (though he does have brief cameo at the end) a strange idea was hatched. Originally this film was to be called Smokey IS the Bandit, with Jackie Gleason playing both Sheriff Justice and the Bandit. It’s like how Lon Chaney Jr. was supposed to play both the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man. That didn’t pan out as planned, and neither did this. Legend has it that test audiences found it confusing to have Gleason in both roles, so reshoots were ordered with Jerry Reed recruited to step into the Bandit role. I like to think that somewhere in a vault at Universal Studios sits the Smokey is the Bandit cut of this movie…waiting to be released on DVD. Hey, we got the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, so one can dream.
Wanting to see the original version of this film is mostly just to satisfy my curiosity, because I can’t imagine it’s much of an improvement on this film. It’s not bad, per se, it’s just a far cry from the original. Jackie Gleason still does a decent job as Sheriff Justice, but he just doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to go into full rage mode as he did in the last two outings. Jerry Reed is a pleasant enough guy, likable and all, but Burt Reynolds he ain’t. The filmmakers actually waste a big opportunity for comedy by not having Reed fumble his way through trying to be the Bandit. He pretty much just leaps into the role with little effort when he should be struggling to have smidge of the original Bandit’s charisma. On the plus side, though, I did enjoy the addition of Colleen Camp to the cast. Sure she’s standing in for Sally Field, and that’s a hard shadow to escape, but she’s cute and spunky enough to bring a certain level of fun to the proceedings.
Of course, one thing that the Bandit films are known for is the stunts. The first two movies were directed by Hal Needham, originally a stunt man. There are plenty of stunts here in part 3, but while impressive they lack the energy of the other films. One sequence in particular is performed well, but since it involves the Sheriff encountering a truck load of KKK members, in full hoods and all, it’s hard to enjoy the stunt work. Another odd series of events lands the Sheriff in a nudist colony, and we do get boobs in this PG movie.
Still, with all the film’s faults, it’s honestly not as bad as I expected it to be. Though the film itself may be a half-hearted attempt to squeeze a bit more money out of the Bandit franchise, Gleason is still giving it his all. Is it as good a performance as the other two films, no. Is Gleason phoning it in, though? Not by a longshot. His cantankerous sheriff is still quite charming on a certain level.
The original Smokey and the Bandit is a wonderful film, as funny and thrilling as it ever was. Part II is a bit of a train wreck. Truth be told, I’d probably sooner sit down to Part 3 again than try to make it through Part II. Though certainly lackluster, Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 comes across as a harmless distraction. Part II has Dom Deluise and an elephant, and you can only take so much of that.