Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds) is currently in prison, serving his time with one year of his sentence to go, when he receives some bad news. Very bad: his brother has been found dead in suspicious circumstances, and although nobody can prove anything, it is believed that the Sheriff (Ned Beatty) of Bogan County was instrumental in the death. Filled with rage, Gator breaks out of jail and makes a run for it across the surrounding countryside, but does not get far enough and is quickly caught. However, the authorities offer him a proposition: if he helps bring down that corrupt sheriff and his moonshine ring, he may well get pardoned...
In some ways, White Lightning was a transitional film for Hollywood and American cinema in general, not because it was any kind of classic, but because it sent many filmmakers in one direction for much of the rest of the seventies. If Reynolds, here making his persona as the World's Most Fabulous Man plain for all to see, had not had hits with his good old boy movies, then exploitation efforts from the U.S. of A. may well have taken a different path. As it was, this film led to the mega successes of Smokey and the Bandit, to the minor successes of any number of New World low budget action flicks, all the way to The Dukes of Hazzard being must-see television for a generation.
Oddly, there's not much joy in the film, as in spite of featuring the requisite car chases and the leading man getting one over on the lawmen in the vicinity, actual humour was thin on the ground. When the plot does resolve itself into the kind of pursuit with a jokey payoff at the end, it marks perhaps the style that they should have adopted all along, as this is far too serious for its own good, with a misguided attempt at something to say in a social commentary fashion when it's really strongest at its more lively sequences. Those sequences were directed by legendary stunt arranger Hal Needham, another important figure in these so-called "hick flicks", about to turn director himself with Reynolds as his star.
So Gator gets out of prison on the condition that he must take down Sheriff Connors, with Beatty here proving he had range after his unforgettable turn in Deliverance. In fact the whole film is well cast with an eye to which faces would look most authentic in this setting, from Jennifer Billingsley as the slightly over the hill love interest, to Bo Hopkins as her beau who Gator teams up with in the illegal whisky business, but is working underhandedly both as a stool pigeon and as a man taking away his new friend's woman. Unfortunately for too many times this presents laidback conversations in too dark interiors, as if director Joseph Sargent was reluctant to admit the drama was far better if his characters were emphatically on the move rather than otherwise static.
There are a few nice scenes that don't feature cars zooming about dusty roads and tracks, as the one where Gator attempts to seduce a worker at the courthouse to get more information and access to it ends with her twigging what he's up to and deciding she's far too virtuous to fall for his line in charm. Reynolds was in his element of course, but comes across as wanting to take this a lot more lightheartedly than the demands of the story will allow him to, and the final revelation about why his brother was killed, which was nothing to do with lawbreaking, is clunkily matched to an unconvincing consideration of the hippies and their anti-war sentiments, a subplot which is out of place to say the least. What White Lightning does have in its favour is the atmosphere of the Deep South and the personality of its denizens, which many filmmakers from then on would capitalise on, whether for fun or not. Music by Charles Bernstein.