Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1978): Hooper

Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham were at the height of their popularity in 1978 following the previous year's monster hit, Smokey and the Bandit. So they decided to join forces again for a movie tribute to stuntmen -- both had done some stunt work early in their careers. Hooper didn't reign at the box office like Bandit, but it was a better movie and was certainly better than most of what the pair did after that.

Reynolds is Sonny Hooper, "the greatest stuntman alive," and he is coordinating the stunt work for the Bond-ish The Spy Who Laughed at Danger. The director, Roger Deal (Robert Klein), is an arrogant jerk who has a free hand from the studio because his last movie was a $100 million smash. Roger keeps upping the ante on the stunts, putting Hooper and his crew in more danger -- but Hooper is feeding the fire himself as he wants to stay one step ahead of a talented newcomer, Delmore Shidski ("Ski"), played by Jan-Michael Vincent. But his years of high impacts and hard partying have taken their toll, and Hooper's next stunt could cost him his health or worse. He has to balance his professional pride, potential catastrophic injury and his responsibility to his girlfriend, Gwen Doyle (Sally Field).

Hooper is the kind of crowd-pleasing movie that banks on its star's charisma and as mentioned, Reynolds was then in the most popular phase of his career. Story and character development were mostly secondary, especially for a lightweight comedy like this. But thanks to the talent of Reynolds, Field, Klein, Vincent and James Best as Hooper's best friend Cully, it punches well above its weight class as it muses about aging and the loss of youth and as it drips some satire on the movie business itself. Bandit may have been more fun in the theater (and that's the way 14-year-old me remembers it) and Hooper has nothing like Jackie Gleason's Sheriff Buford T. Justice (of Texas!), but it's a movie that sticks longer.

The fact that Hooper may have led indirectly to The Fall Guy and the awesome Lee Majors single "The Unknown Stuntman" is also in its favor.

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