‘There ain’t nothin’ like the life of a Hollywood stuntman’ chirps the upbeat title song of Hal Needham’s slapdash follow-up to Smokey and the Bandit, bringing back Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, and doubling down on the action by focusing on the world of stunts. A big BBC Xmas tv schedule buster circa 1983, and a top ten box office film in the US back in 1978, Hooper is largely forgotten these days, not as iconic as Smokey and the Bandit, or as painfully hokey as Needham and Reynolds’ Cannonball Run franchise, it’s a rather patchy film that never quite decides what mood to take to its macho subject
Needham had nothing to prove as a stuntman, but seemed to relish getting an upgrade to the director’s chair; the first subject that seemed to catch his imagination was himself. So our hero Hooper is based on Needham, the clothes, the attitude, all making Hooper something of a love-in between Needham and himself. Reynolds at his worst can be a horribly self-regarding performer, and the gang-show elements includes such inessential elements as impressions of James Stewart, topless women bursting out of cardboard cakes, and all manner of camaraderie and humble-bragging, plus some questionable attitudes by modern standards.
‘People are using pocket calculators…and f****ts are getting married,’ bemoans one character as he reflect on changing times, to which Reynolds replies “I love you’ to seal the deal on homophobia condoned. The plot sees an aging Hooper, addled with painkillers and potentially losing his grip on the top spot of the stunt world to Delmore ‘Ski’ Shidski (Jan Michael Vincent). Somehow being a passenger in a rocket car driven by Ski making a massive jump is the only way for Hooper to stay on top, and that’s the climax of this film, providing an opportunity for the actors to corpse at the mention of a ‘giant crevice’. Field’s underwritten part in particular is particularly thankless; one minute she’s begging Hooper not to attempt a stunt, they next she’s on site, cheering him on.
‘It has a nice greyness like La Strada’ is about as far as we get with film-making satire; this is largely a brash, knockabout comedy with lots of sitting on top of cars in car parks and drinking product placement beer. The film Hooper’s working on is called “The Spy Who Laughed at Danger’ and is clearly a spoof of the Roger Moore James Bond films, but there’s no real digs and the final apocalyptic series of crashes and explosions suggests a war rather than a movie. The stunts just about save Hooper from being completely non-descript, but unfortunately for star and director, this also proved to be a high-point, leading so rapidly downhill that no rocket car could ever boost them back to the good times they want to celebrate. In short, Hooper the movie never quite recovers from Hooper the character’s obnoxiousness; it’s exhausting always rooting for this anti-hero.