This movie is about Sonny Hooper “The Greatest Stuntman Alive” and though this character is fictional he is clearly based on events and people from former stuntman, now turned director, Hal Needham’s life. There have been many movies about the world of filmmaking, and even a few about stuntmen, but Hooper is not so much a movie about stuntmen, as it is a love letter to them.
Sonny Hooper (Burt Reynolds) is a veteran stuntman, a man who is now entering the twilight of his career, and years of being “The Greatest Stuntman Alive” has taken a severe toll on his body. His best friend and fellow stuntie Cully (James Best) is concerned for Hooper’s health, all the while reluctantly feeding him Percocets to ease his pain. His long-time girlfriend Gwen (Sally Field) wants to settle down, but hopefully with a non-paralyzed Hooper. New on the scene is a hotshot kid Delmore “Ski” Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent), who is of the new breed of stuntmen, ones that are now replacing the old guard.
The paragraph above may make this film seem to be some kind of an introspective look at one of the most interesting aspects of the film industry, but that is definitely not the case, Hal Needham and his cronies have gathered together to have a blast and show off their stuntmen skills, and any drama this movie puts forth is pretty much accidental. After the huge success of Smokey and the Bandit – which Needham also directed – he and Reynolds were pretty much given carte blanche when it came to their next project, and it shows, as Hooper is basically a collection of stunt gags – really impressive stunts to be sure – with barely a plot to hold them together. Watching the film I got the impression that they all were just sitting around a bar asking questions like, “What’s the world’s record for highest freefall without a parachute?” followed by, “I can beat that.”
In Smokey and the Bandit, they had the great Jackie Gleason as the main antagonist Sheriff Buford T. Justice, and he was brilliant in the part, while in Hooper we have Robert Klein as prima donna director Roger Deal, who is a thinly veiled send-up of director Peter Bogdanovich, sadly, he is neither funny nor all that interesting of a character and that goes double for his sidekick Tony (Alfie Wise) who is around for the sole purpose of being the target of a collection of unfunny short jokes.
At one point an officer from the Humane Society is on set – he’s there to ensure that an actual dog will not be used during a high fall stunt – and he is reassured that a fake dog will be making the fall with Hooper, but because the fake dog looks terrible Tony tells Hooper to do it with the real one. What is almost meta here, and quite hilarious, is that the makers of this film couldn’t use a real dog – damn those Human Society killjoys – so what Burt Reynolds is seen holding is clearly a stuffed dog. Totally ruining the movie’s supposed “reality.”
The plot, if you can call it a plot, is about a mad director named Roger Deal, who is making a huge James Bond-type film starring Adam West called The Spy Who Laughed at Danger, and how he keeps upping the stakes to the point where there is a good chance someone is going to die in the process of this film’s production. Will Hooper agree to do the dangerous rocket-car jump for the end of the movie, or will he walk away while he can still walk?
The film is chock full of some amazing stunts – jaw-dropping at times – but for me, the truly interesting thing they do here is in making the character of Ski likable, and not into some sort of villainous rival, yet the truly strange thing here is that Burt Reynolds and Jan-Michael Vincent have better on-screen charisma together than what Burt has with real-life girlfriend Sally Field – at least in this movie – but it all works towards making this a being a better movie so that’s fine. I really do wish they’d retire the old clichéd of the disapproving girlfriend, the one who threatens to leave her man unless he quits his dangerous profession, as it certainly wasn’t needed in a movie about car chases, bar brawls and explosions.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a very fun film, and if you like big action set pieces this movie ends with a doozy, and Burt Reynolds has clearly embraced the charmingly smug persona that made him a star, but with all those talented people involved – in front of and behind the camera – it could have been so much better. I just wish that a film directed by a former stuntman would have been a bit more accurate on how stunt work actually functions on set, instead of this silly Hollywood version we ended up with.
Trivia: The title character “Hooper” is a reference to the name “Hooker” as in Buddy Joe Hooker, one of the best stuntmen in the business, and who also worked on this film. The character of Hooper though is mostly based on Jock Mahoney, one of the greatest stuntmen of all time, and stepfather to Sally Field.
Hal Needham does serviceable work in the action/comedy genre while Burt gives a very charming and likably performance as an aging stuntman. Of course the stunts themselves are the true stars of this film.