In 1973 Burt Reynolds had a hit with his southern action/drama White Lightning, so three years later the studios wanted to see if lightning could strike twice with Gator.
Gator comes across more as a goofy remake of White Lightning than a proper sequel, with its premise being much the same as the original; a corrupt southern county has the government worried so they send Gator McKlusky undercover to root out the bad guys, but with a lot more comic hijinks this time around. The tone of this movie is completely all over the map; it veers from such moments as Gator hilariously out maneuvering the cops in a boat chase to a grim scene where Gator is confronted with a 15 year old prostitute hooked on drugs, not to mention the death toll among Gator’s friends.
The original White Lightning was drama highlighted by some cool action sequences while Gator doesn’t seem to know if it’s an action movie, a drama or a slapstick comedy. Though the movie does tip us off to what kind of film we’re getting into by its opening theme song, “The Ballad of Gator McKlusky” written and sung by Jerry Reed.
You know what you’re in for when you have such insightful lyrics as “Everything’s okey-dokey in the Okefenokee.”
In White Lightning Gator made a deal with the Feds to go undercover so that he could get out of prison to find out how and why his brother was killed. Because this movie is a font of originality the Feds threaten to throw Gator into prison if he doesn’t go undercover for them. The film has about a ten minute massive stunt filled boat chase where the police try and catch Gator so they can force him to work for them, but Gator eludes them because, “law won’t never catch Gator my friend ‘cause he knows that swamp like the back of his hand.”
Or they at least won’t catch stuntman Hal Needham.
Later that night Gator (Burt Reynolds) returns to his home to find a federal agent named Irving Greenfield (Jack Weston) waiting for him. Greenfield proceeds to threaten to throw Gator’s dad in jail and his daughter in foster care unless he co-operates with the Feds. If we look passed the stupidity of Gator returning home after a high speed boat chase, a chase that resulted in the destruction of almost every police boat, we are still left with the glaring fact that it achieved absolutely nothing! Why hop into your jet fueled super boat but leave behind your dad and kid to be nabbed by the authorities?
So Gator is sent to Dunston County where an old friend of his by the name of Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), a corrupt racketeer who dabbles in underage prostitution as well at the protection racket, has set up shop. Bama immediately gives Gator a job as bagman which leads to Gator discovering how really slimy and despicable his old friend has become i.e. poor folks forced to pay up or get beaten and their business burned down and the whole underage age prostitutes hooked on drugs thing.
There are two opposing forces to the current corruption in the form of local TV newscaster Aggie Maybank (Lauren Hutton) and fired County Clerk Emmeline Cavanaugh (Alice Ghostley). These two, along with Greenfield from Gator’s posse of comic idiots. Jack Weston plays Greenfield as your typical fish-out-of-water city boy while Alice Ghostley’s crazy cat-lady political protestor is even more cartoonish and clichéd. I’m a fan of both these actors, but nothing seen in this movie could be considered “comedy gold.”
Lauren Hutton is this film’s love interest and her relationship with Gator is about as sexually charged as a decade old 9 volt battery. I hope the verbal banter between these two was adlibbed, because if someone was paid to write those clunkers I’d consider that a greater crime than anything seen perpetrated by Bama McCall.
Of course Bama will eventually tumble to the fact that Gator is working for the government and we will be treated to fun and goofy moments between Gator and Bama’s two henchmen, Bones and Smiley. Smiley (Burton Gilliam) has this rictus grin stuck on his face that has one wondering if he was auditioning to play a Joker victim, and Bones (William Engesser) is so incredibly tall that he is forced to drive with his head out of his car’s sun roof. Neither of these fellas are a credible threat to Gator who “folks swear he came straight outta hell.”
The film’s wackiness comes to a head when Gator and Aggie must team up with Emmeline to break into the Town Hall to steal records that will prove that Bama and Mayor Caffrey (Dub Taylor) owe thousands of dollars in back taxes. Emmeline insists they bring her two cats along and thus hijinks ensue.
After Gator and company escape the inept Dunston County police by stealing a police car they swing by the hospital to get Greenfield who had been beaten up earlier by Bones and Smiley. Aggie comes up with the brilliant plan of hiding out at her uncle’s beach house until the government authorities arrive. By brilliant I mean rock stupid as this “investigative journalist” doesn’t seem to understand that a corrupt local government might just have access to property records. This leads to Greenfield getting two shotgun blasts to the chest and poor Emmeline burned alive.
Gator was directed by Burt Reynolds and as a directorial debut it’s not the worst thing in the world, but the screenplay was completely tone deaf and the comedy cringe worthy at times. And just who thought it would be a good idea to have your two comic relief characters brutally murdered? This is definitely a case of a sequel not understanding what made the original a good film.
Trivia Note: Sterling Archer, from the brilliant animated show Archer, is a huge Burt Reynolds fan and considers Gator to be the stronger installment. Take that for what you will.
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
This is certainly a case where a sequel just wasn’t warranted and the one we got doesn’t even half achieve what the original one did. Jerry Reed as the despicable Bama McCall is easily the most interesting character to be found in this film, while Burt’s Gator McKlusky becomes just another one of Reynold’s Good Ole Boy caricatures.