Whenever I start to feel like I’ve been watching a lot of badass, hardcore movies for the benefit of this site, I like to take the edge off with something down-low stupid. A real low maintenance feature that I can coast on. It’s like hitting Six Flags and pounding rollercoasters all day. You hit this point where you feel like you’re going to pass out because those coasters are fucking raw and abundant in the confines of the park. The only way to keep the energy level going is to slow it down and ride the kiddie rides because if you hit that Nightwing ride one more time, that seven dollar burger is coming back up, smeared across your face, stuck in your hair and probably all over the person behind you on the Superman coaster. Got it? Good.
When I was 3 or 4 I used to stick it out through The Incredible Hulk and hide behind the sofa whenever Bill Bixby started to Hulk out because it scared the shit out of me. But the fear was worth it because after The Hulk ended The Dukes of Hazzard began and I loved that show! Because of that, I’ve had a burning need to own a Mopar, preferably a Charger. ’69. Black. But I’d settle for an alpine white 1970 Challenger, if you know what I mean. What I’m getting at is that I really dug the Duke Boys but what I didn’t know was that the show was actually based on a wave of hillbilly hicksploitation movies that kicked off in the mid-70’s and more or less crested with either Convoy or Smokey and the Bandit, depending on who you ask. Moonrunners, in particular, serves as the template that The Dukes of Hazzard followed even though the show was way kid friendly and sanded down the sharp edges that made light of nasty motherfuckers like The Dixie Mafia. All the while, Waylon Jennings still spends a good deal of the movie narrating the action with all manner of down-home colloquialisms. Bottom line, Moonrunners represents the top of the heap. Ten minutes doesn’t go by before someone gets a guitar smashed over their head. Awesome.
Bobby Lee and Grady Hagg run moonshine for their uncle Jesse, an old time liquor bootlegger in backwoods Georgia. The pair of drivers are fast driving, badass sons-of-bitches and loyal to their uncle all the way. When they’re not running moonshine and when Bobby Lee isn’t doing time for brawling, they drive their stock car against other local moonrunners at the local dirt track. Times are changing, though. Local kingpin, Jake Rainey, has everyone in the local scene in his pocket and ships cheap liquor for a New York syndicate. Jesse and his top-shelf booze are the only thing standing in his way from total control over the local bootleg community. Jesse’s principles stop him from closing up shop and selling out to Jake, though, and Bobby Lee and Grady do everything in their power to make sure that Jake doesn’t get the best of them. When the syndicate leans on Jake to produce more booze, he sets all of his goons on the Hagg boys.
If you want to get technical, even before Moonrunners became The Dukes of Hazzard, Moonrunners was inspired in part by the real life exploits of Jerry Rushing, legendary moonrunner and one of NASCAR’s earliest superstars. This autobiographical quality of the movie, though wildly exagerrated, I’m sure, makes it such a likable movie. There are car chases, honor among thieves and rednecks fucking with one another. It’s rough around the edges and features a cool soundtrack provided by Waylon Jennings.
Though it’s goofy and the real dangers of the Dixie Mafia are filtered out it’s not hard to see why these good ol’ boys movies were so popular in their time. Moonrunners, in particular, is a very likable movie populated by likable characters. Though James Mitchum and Kiel Martin are a far cry from The Dukes of Hazzard’s John Schneider and Tom Wopat, they’re actually a much more believable pair of rural Georgia boys. What’s more, the movie is peppered with a generous helping of comedy and the two of them carry the laughs well. As a matter of fact, the entire cast is funny when they’re trying to be and that’s a rare commodity among movies made on the quick for short coin. It falters when the ladies are introduced. Jake Rainey’s wife, Reba makes a couple of short appearances that are obviously to throw a little cleavage into the scene, but the bad girl on the run character, Beth, a strong female lead with potential to be more than eye candy is pretty much squandered, as if they had plans for her but didn’t know how to carry them out. She exists here to be more than good looking but never becomes more than that. It’s a shame.
While the movie isn’t necessarily akin to Vanishing Point or its other car chases contemporaries of the time, also without a single badass muscle car so common in movies of its type, it features a few scenes of slick driving, many performed by Jerry Rushing, himself, who served as a consultant on the movie. And just as you might expect from an episode of The Dukes, a lot of cars wipeout in the brush and crash into ponds, which isn’t such a bad thing. Unfortunately, it becomes apparent in a few chases that the footage is being sped up for speed effect but some of the stunts, in particular the bait and switch chase toward the end, are rife with sweet crashes and burnouts. Uncle Jesse’s POV race with the ATF through the brush is also a landmark.
Unfortunately, the movie ends abruptly, hinting at more of the Hagg’s antagonizing Jake Rainey and getting away with murder, laughing all the way, but none of this ever comes. Instead, the credits roll, Waylon sings and we’re left with the feeling of “that’s it?” Such a strong picture and running a little over 100 minutes, it feels like it could have gone another twenty minutes, easily. One more chase scene, please. Thankfully, the entire movie is paced well, is funny, chock full of fancy driving and very colorful characters. Jake Rainey, the inspiration for Boss Hogg, is even a likable villain in spite of his status as a pimp. You’d swear that Sid Haig studied George Ellis to perfect his Captain Spaulding character. Everything about it is great and I already have a handful of other moonshine/hicksploitation flicks lined up behind it. Next up, His Royal Highness, John Saxon in Moonshine Country Express