By Linc Leifeste | December 2, 2014
Director: Burt Reynolds
Writer: William W. Norton
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Jack Weston, Lauren Hutton, Jerry Reed, Alice Ghostley, Dub Taylor, Mike Douglas, Burton Gilliam, William Engesser, John Steadman, Lori Futch
As the cover of Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ Blu-ray release states, “The bayou’s baddest good ol’ boy is back!” Three years after Burt Reynolds introduced the world to Gator McKlusky in 1973’s White Lightning, Reynolds stepped behind the camera for his big screen directorial debut to reprise the character with 1976’s Gator. And the results show Reynolds displaying a competent directorial hand even as he clearly leans on the methodologies of the film’s predecessor.
Once again the film features an early sequence with law enforcement in boats on swampland waters, this time converging on Gator’s (Burt Reynolds) recently released from prison moonshining abode, where he’s living with his father (John Steadman) and young daughter (Lori Futch). The reason they’re looking for Gator isn’t because of his ongoing illegal distilling but because they want him to go undercover one more time, this time to help take down Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), a childhood friend of Gator’s who has gone on to become the apparently untouchable vicious criminal overlord of a neighboring county, much to the embarrassment of Georgia’s Governor (Mike Douglas).
It seems the Governor has presidential aspirations but needs to show he can clean up the mess in his own state in order to have a chance at winning national office. Enter bumbling comedic Federal agent Irving Greenfield (Jack Weston), who is soon “leading” a cadre of Georgia law enforcement in the swampland hunt for Gator. Quicker than you can say, “Yee-haw!”, Gator is in a souped up boat, having some fun making monkeys of the law enforcement. And it’s quickly apparent, as Gator rams his boat over and through countless law enforcement boats and one boat crashes through a run down shack, that this film also features the amazing work of stunt coordinator and fearless daredevil Hal Needham.
Unfortunately, it’s also soon apparent that the tonal shifts of White Lightning between deadly serious violence and good ol’ boy goofiness are only amplified in Gator, making for a tonally incoherent mess of a film. One minute we’re yucking it up over the goofiness of Weston’s affable, plump “New York Jew” Fed or the quirkiness of eccentric cat-loving county employee turned snitch Emmeline Cavanaugh (Alice Ghostly), the next minute we’re wincing as Bama shows off his stable of underage, drug-addicted prostitutes or cold-bloodedly blows away a supporting character with his sawed-off shotgun.
Gator, while undeniably a fun watch, pales a bit in comparison to its predecessor in its turn to the more formulaic. The abundance of car chases that made the first chapter so fun are pared down to one boat chase and McKlusky’s complicated, nuanced romantic relationship is replaced with standard Hollywood romantic fare this time around as he charms, but can’t quite win, the heart of Aggie Maybank (Lauren Hutton), the southern reporter with New York/Pulitzer aspirations. And as truly great as Jerry Reed is as the smilingly sinister southern heavy, the stellar supporting cast of its predecessor is sorely missing in White Lightning. But as Gator and Bama duke it out in an old fashioned barnburner of a scrum finale that surely left Reynolds and Reed aching, it’s easier to remember the film’s entertaining virtues than its annoying vices.