JOSEPH SARGENT’S WHITE LIGHTNING — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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It might be hard to imagine now, but back in the day, Burt Reynolds was one of the biggest stars of his generation, appearing in a string of massive box office hits that cemented him as one of the most consistent big-screen draws of the 70’s. Released in 1973, Joseph Sargent’s hilarious and rowdy Southern-tinged action flick White Lightning was a wild and woolly introduction to the Robert “Gator” McKlusky character, giving Reynolds the perfect opportunity to project his patented brand of laconic cinematic sexiness, playing a man of action in every sense of the word. Written with pep and a penchant for idiocy by scribe turned illegal arms dealer William W. Norton (Brannigan, Gator, Sam Whiskey, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing), White Lightning revolves around “Gator” McKlusky, an Arkansas prison inmate who was thrown in the slammer for running moonshine. Complications arise when he learns that his younger brother has been killed by a corrupt local Sheriff, who happens to be in cahoots with other rival moonshiners. He’s then removed from prison and sent undercover in a joint sting operation to bring down the crime ring.

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All hell breaks loose, there are numerous car chases, and an absolutely rip-roaring finale goes down with a car launch that is truly crazy. Jennifer Billingsley, Ned Beatty, Bo Hopkins, Diane Ladd, and Laura Dern in her screen debut (she went uncredited) populated the solid supporting cast, with Beatty giving a particularly fun performance as the chief baddie. Cinematographer Edward Rosson shot with what appears to be mostly natural or available light, with a particularly moody opening sequence depicting an ominous canoe excursion through the bayou that evokes nature in an unpredictable fashion. The twangy soundtrack perfectly fit the milieu, with Charles Bernstein’s original score later getting sampled by the cinematic kitsch-pop icon Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Inglorious Basterds. The legendary Hal Needham handled second unit direction and stunt coordination duties; his list of credits in various capacities is absolutely outrageous.

wlSargent, who also directed Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and the disasterpiece Jaws: The Revenge, wasted no time with the lean screenplay, and injected some sly social commentary into the proceedings; watch for a rather phenomenal long-take that incorporates various characters into a quick mosaic of Southern life. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to make his feature directing debut with White Lightning, and you can even see some similarities between the film and his eventual big-screen introduction, The Sugarland Express. Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray release looks and sounds excellent, with a picture quality that likely reflects the original release print, as nothing looks artificial, with that sense of shot-on-true-celluloid still intact. The film’s priceless original trailer and an new and funny interview with Reynolds are included as special features. A sequel, simply titled Gator, would be released in 1976 to similar success with audiences if not critics.

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