Hooper ★★★½

There was a time when Burt Reynolds was considered a fine actor as well as a box office star. Films like Deliverance especially indicated his ability. However, his smug, somewhat smarmy smart-ass persona soon emerged and his peak period from 1973 to 1980 (when he was in the yearly lists of top ten most popular stars) cultivated a kind of good ole boy image. Prominent amongst the crop of hits in this period was Smokey and the Bandit, directed by former stuntman turned director Hal Needham. Easy amiability, sex appeal and fast car stunt-work proved a hit formula in the 1970s, and Reynolds and Needham teamed for a number of car oriented comedies, including Hooper and the Cannonball Run series. Although these films all but ended Reynolds’ hold on respectability for many critics, they are a cultural body of work intriguing in their time. Indeed, Hooper seems something like a personal project for Needham, his tribute to his profession and the lifestyle it supports and values, and is arguably the best of these films. Needham had such faith in the film that he secured a budget of over $35 million and delivered one of the more popular hits of the late 1970s.

Hooper tells the story of a veteran stuntman played by Burt Reynolds. Now getting old, and with serious back pain (for which he takes unauthorized pain killers) Reynolds has a steady girlfriend (Sally Field) although is still holding out against the possibility of marriage, despite some pressure from her retired stuntman father (Brian Keith). The assault on Reynolds’ mortality takes another hit when he finds that there is a new stuntman (Jan Michael Vincent) who may be challenging his pre-eminence in the field. Reynolds is stunt co-ordinator on a type of American James Bond adventure and recommends Vincent for a stuntman part. Vincent so impresses the director that the responsibility is enlarged and Reynolds’ position is threatened. When a highly dangerous stunt is proposed to end the film (using a rocket-powered car to jump a gorge when a bridge is blown up), Reynolds agrees to partner Vincent in the stunt, which requires two men. However, pressure from his doctor and his girlfriend force him to re-assess his potential last moment of glory and attempt at a kind of stuntman immortality.

The film is a rather blatant attempt to mythologize the stuntman figure, perhaps in the hope of making him a genuine movie archetype. After all, it seemed at the time that there was a mini-vogue for films concerning stuntmen, as the thriller Stunts and the brilliant The Stunt Man emerged. Hooper however intends an amiable portrait of a ageing man who is not prepared to admit his age and the fallibility that goes with it – he is simply not yet ready for mortality and so takes on more daring stunts in an effort to prove himself the best. It is as though he seeks some kind of immortality, the stunts a ritual kind of cheating death. At one level though, relatively unexplored, he is weary of stunt-work and may be grooming Vincent to take his place, mentoring the young kid on the block. The simple pressures of stability and a loved one act even on stunt men. However, it is clear that the risky lifestyle is the main source of self-definition for these men although the film never really develops it as an existential statement. With their fun-loving, brawling ways they are almost modern, if irresponsible, cowboys. With a gentle tone concerning then contemporary country and western culture and lifestyles (as Clint Eastwood would do in Every Which Way but Loose and Any Which Way You Can), the film addresses the potential for such irresponsible people to be role models, charting how they must eventually act to the challenges of responsibility.

Much is made of the effort to tie Reynolds the actor and the person to the Hooper character. Thus in one scene, Reynolds is seen wearing a tee shirt for Florida State University, where many years before Reynolds had attended as a football quarterback before himself venturing into film and television stunt work and eventually acting. His suitability to the character type he essays here is perfect and makes Hooper one of the quintessential Reynolds roles, and a film that at least serves to define the ethos surrounding the figure of the stuntman, bringing him into the recognizable world of the male mid-life crisis, in the process being one of the first films to admit that its star was getting old. As director Needham was a former stuntman it is impossible not to think that this film is in some ways autobiographical, his salute to a lifestyle that he had to give up, for whatever reason. Thus, the film is additionally interesting for the look into the backstage filmmaking and stunt arranging process, convincingly detailing just what lifestyle is threatened. Nevertheless, it is primarily a film about a man facing the realization that he has to change his life and indeed about the value of the life willing to risk itself for a filmed effect. As such, Hooper has surprising, if minor, resonance even though it will probably be mostly remembered as merely a slightly better Reynolds vehicle from the 1970s.