Burt Reynolds had been gnawing around the boundaries of genuine stardom for more than a decade, starring in short-lived television shows and top-lining "B" movies. He ingratiated himself to the American public by showcasing his wit and comedic abilities by appearing on chat shows. In 1972, he struck gold when director John Boorman cast him opposite Jon Voight as the two male leads in the sensational film adaptation of James Dickey's "Deliverance". Finally, he could be classified as a major movie star. Soon, Reynolds was cranking out major films even while his uncanny ability to publicize himself resulted in such stunts as his famed provocative centerfold pose in Cosmopolitan magazine. On screen, Reynolds sensed that he could cultivate an especially enthusiastic audience if he catered to rural movie-goers. He was proven right with the release of "White Lightning", a highly enjoyable 1973 action/comedy that perfectly showcased Reynolds' favored image as a handsome, unflappable hero with a Bondian knack for tossing off quips while facing death and also engaging in good ol' boy towel-snapping humor. Playing bootlegger Gator McClusky, Reynolds drew major crowds, very much pleasing United Artists, which enjoyed hefty profits from the modestly-budgeted production. Reynolds learned, however, that his audience wouldn't necessarily follow him if he deviated from that image. When he went against the grain in films like "The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing", "At Long Last Love" and "Lucky Lady", the movies bombed. When he stuck to the basics, he had hits with "Shamus", "The Longest Yard" and "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings". The legendary Variety headline that read "Hix Nix Stix Pix" was no longer true. The American heartland loved Burt Reynolds, especially when he played characters that rural audiences could embrace.
In 1976, Reynolds fulfilled another career milestone by directing his first feature film, a sequel to "White Lightning" titled "Gator". Like the first movie, it was shot entirely on location in Georgia and picked up on the adventures of everyone's favorite moonshiner. When we first see Gator in the sequel, he his getting out of jail only to be targeted by the feds to be used as a pawn in a multi-state crackdown on an epidemic of political corruption that threatens the career of the self-serving, ambitious governor (played very well by famed chat show host Mike Douglas in his big screen debut.) Gator is living in a shack located deep in an inhospitable swamp with his elderly father and precocious 9 year-old daughter when the feds launch a major raid to arrest him on moonshining charges. In reality, they want to use the warrant as leverage to convince him to go undercover for them inside the crime ring. Gator wants no part of it and leads the feds on a merry chase around the bayou in which he is pursued by speed boats and helicopters before finally relenting. The lead federal agent in charge is Irving Greenfield (Jack Weston), an overweight, hyper-nervous Jewish guy from Manhattan who has the unenviable task of ensuring that Gator follows orders. A good portion of the film's laugh quotient comes from Irving's less-than-convincing attempts to "blend in" with small town southern locals. The crime ring is run by Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), an outwardly charming and charismatic fellow who, in reality, uses brutally violent methods to ensure loyalty and intimidate local businessmen to pay protection money. He and Gator are old acquaintances and he doesn't hesitate to give Gator a good-paying job as an enforcer for his mob. Things become more intriguing when Gator sets eyes on Aggie Maybank (Lauren Hutton), an attractive local TV anchor with liberal political beliefs that find her squaring off against Bama in order to protect the poor merchants he is exploiting. "Gator" proceeds on a predictable path but its predictability doesn't detract from its merits, which are considerable. Reynolds is a joy to watch and it's small wonder he leaped to the top ranks of cinematic leading men. His cocky, self-assured persona served him well on the big screen and "Gator" is custom-made to please his core audience. He also proved to be a very able director, handling the action scenes and those of unexpected tragic twists with equal skill. He also gets very good performances from his eclectic cast, with Weston engaging in his usual penchant for scene-stealing. Reed also shines in a rare villainous role and ex-model Hutton proves she has admirable acting chops, as well. The action scenes are impressive thanks to the oversight of the legendary Hal Needham, who would forge a long-time collaborative relationship with Reynolds.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is impressive not only because of the
excellent transfer but also because it contains a recently filmed
interview with Reynolds, who extols the film's virtues and its personal
meaning to him. In an unusually candid conversation, he divulges amusing
anecdotes about Hutton's on-set quirks that included a penchant for
exhibitionism (she would flash her breasts to appreciative crew
members.) He also relates how a car crash stunt almost killed Hal
Needham. Most poignantly, he talks about his personal affection for
Georgia, a state he has filmed over twenty movies in. He also candidly
expresses his regret that only directed a few films and never fulfilled
his dream of directing productions he didn't star in. The Blu-ray set
also includes an original trailer that plays up Reynold's directorial
debut. In all, a highly impressive release of an action film showcasing
Reynolds at his best. Recommended.