The roman numerals in the title are the only literate thing about this truly awful sequel to the 1977 box-office hit, which brings back pretty much all of the original team and yet misses out on almost everything that made the first film so appealing. I’d prevaricated between three and four stars for reviewing Smokey and the Bandit, but in retrospect, four is right; there’s a real charm about the outdoorsy feel, the lush greenery glimpsed rushing by behind Sally Field as she trades barbs in a open-topped Trans-Am with Reynolds. Three years have passed here, but it feels like twenty, and Hal Needham’s needless sequel shows just how quick the milk can curdle.
Instead of a mobile chase, this time, we have a long series of static scenes involving, not cool cars and comedy, but endless strained clowning and mugging with a pregnant elephant. Instead of the fresh-air and open road, we have empty car-parks and dusty desert. We double-down on corn-poke humour; there’s ten full minutes of mean-spirited arguing before we see the Smokey (Jackie Gleason), then another five before we see the Bandit (Reynolds) and when we do, we wish we hadn’t. For some reason, Needham and co have decided to give the Bandit depth; now he’s an alcoholic, seen drinking himself into oblivion in a dismal hotel room. He’s wasted all his money on launching a music career that didn’t happen, largely because his music is rubbish. In fact, this Bandit is a loser, but seems to have developed a sneering, negative attitude to everyone but himself. And Reynolds looks awful; his face looks leathery and wrinkled, and is poorly matched with a toupee that looks like road-kill. In the blooper reel at the end, Field looks frustrated and concerned by the star’s random crack-ups that we’re supposed to find funny, but suggest an unhappy set.
The reset is also a dud; it makes zero sense that Carrie (Field) is getting married to the same redneck she ran away from last time; her delight about hearing of the Bandit’s new bet doesn’t square with the seedy, argumentative mission they go on. And there’s no sight of the Bandit’s Trans-Am by the 30 minute mark, and barely thirty seconds of action until the first hour is up. The last twenty minutes, a series of truck vs cops stunts in the desert, suggest Needham and crew were having fun with their toybox, but the dry and dusty circus spectacle doesn’t have the spirit of any of the first’s films narrow escapes. And the new additions, two new, offensive alter-egos for Gleeson and the perennially unfunny Dom DeLuise, slam the brakes on any notion of fun.
Put simply, Smokey and the Bandit II is one of the reasons we have franchises instead of sequels. It’s a lazy, banal hodge-podge of strained comic shouting, male-braggadocio and faded charisma. Bandit arrogantly describes himself as a ‘grass-roots folk-hero’, and that’s what he used to be, but in three short years, he went from hero to zero, and that’s exactly what this film is worth.