We’re off to a bad start with that title; what, is it the Smokey that’s great, or the roadblock, or both? Alternative titles The Goodbye Run and The Last of the Cowboys sound better, but that Smokey title is very 1977, which is a problem when your film started production in 1974. The health problems of star Henry Fonda dragged production out over three years, by which time the Burt Reynolds hit Smokey and the Bandit had taken the good-ole-boy and truck genre in a different direction. But this new title, shamelessly grifted on, doesn’t give an accurate picture of writer/director John Leone’s film, given that there’s no automobile action until the last 15 minutes.
The gullible may have been attracted by smiling faces and cruiser-smashing big-rigs on the poster, but this film is largely concerned with the activities of six prostitutes and a madam (Eileen Brennan) whose bordello is raided by cops. Genial, dying trucker Elegant John (Henry Fonda) offers to transport them over the border, but the cops get wind of their scheme. Meanwhile Elegant John develops a friendship with a hitch-hiker played by Robert Englund, and Susan Sarandon makes an impression as photo-happy Ginny. Sarandon also executive produced this film, in her 20’s, which would be a pretty impressive act of glass-ceiling -crashing if the content wasn’t so vile. The Great Smokey Sex-Trafficking Incident would be a more accurate title.
As often with ailing stars, production problems lead to an off-kilter project, with lurches into dope-smoking comedy that feel like padding, plus discussion of extra-terrestrial life that doesn’t seem much to do with the resistible central plot. Although his poor condition was right for his aging character, Fonda’s appearance changes abruptly at several points, making him appear to respawn as a healthier version of himself between scenes.
Emerging on Amazon Prime in response to no demand whatsoever, this is a very odd slice of downbeat Americana, certainly not for kids or the sensitive; that we’re supposed to root for Elegant John, with his active enthusiasm for prostitution as part of his home-spun character, is something of an issue in 2020, as is a bafflingly out-of-place scene in which Fonda and Brennan discuss Nietzsche as part of their post-coital reverie.