Hooper (Burt Reynolds) is a respected but aging stunt coordinator who is currently working on an overblown action film called The Spy Who Laughed At Danger. (The spy is played by Adam West, who appears as himself.) Hooper knows that he’s getting too old to keep putting his life at risk but he’s addicted to thrill of doing what he calls “gags.” Every morning, Hooper wakes up, pops pills, has a beer, and then falls off a building or crashes a car. When he’s not doing movies, he’s getting into bar brawls. As demonstrated during a visit to Dodge City, Hooper and his friends are modern day cowboys but time is catching up to them. Hooper’s girlfriend, Gwen (Sally Field), wants Hooper to settle down and retire from the business before he ends up a physical wreck like her father (Brian Keith). Hooper feels that he has to do one last, record-setting stunt before he passes the torch over to younger stuntmen like Ski Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent).
Hooper is a classic Burt Reynolds film, with everything that you expect from late 70s Burt. As always, Burt is deceptively laid back. Sally Field is cute as a button. Old hands like Brian Keith and James Best provide strong support while Robert Klein plays the type of pompous Hollywood director who is just begging to get slugged at the end of the movie. (He does.) The plot of Hooper is even simpler than the plot of Smokey and the Bandit but Hooper is a more heartfelt film. Hal Needham was a stuntman before he became a director and this film was his tribute to the underappreciated people who risked their physical well-being to make movie magic. Needham knew men like Hooper and his friends. They were his people. Needham’s love for the stunt players comes through in every scene.
As for the stunts, they’re real and they’re spectacular.
Hal Needham, of course, will always be associated with Burt Reynolds. Before moving into directing, Needham frequently served as Reynolds’s stunt double and the two were such close friends that Needham spent 12 years living in Reynolds’s guest house. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was partially inspired by the friendship of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, with Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt playing characters who were based on the two men. (Reynolds was even originally cast in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as George Spahn but he died before he could shoot his scenes. The role was taken over by Bruce Dern.) Needham was responsible for directing some of Burt’s best films (Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit and this one) and some of his worst (Stroker Ace and Cannonball Run II). Needham also directed Megaforce, which didn’t feature Burt but which is still, in its own way, unforgettable.
The critics may not have loved the movies that Hal and Burt made together but audiences did. Needham’s best films are just as entertaining today as they were when they were originally released. They don’t demand much but they deliver everything you could possibly want. Whenever the real world is getting to be overwhelming, I’m thankful that I can turn on a Hal Needham film and return to a world where the only thing that matters is driving fast, loving hard, and having a good laugh while you’re doing it. Today, more than ever, the legacy of Hal Needham is just what we need.