Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This unpretentious and uncluttered mini-epic about moonshining and stock car racing in the rural south accomplishes an impressive feat: It's intelligent enough to make viewers forget the idiocy of "Good Ole' Boy " action comedies like Smokey and the Bandit, and The Dukes of Hazzard. The Last American Hero was Jeff Bridges' ninth or tenth film in three years and he was just getting on the map after acclaimed flops like Bad Company and Fat City; this more plebian role won the actor a broad following. Jim Croce's hit song I Got a Name behind the titles didn't hurt either.
Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) runs moonshine for his family but goes into stock car racing when the feds put his father Elroy (Art Lund) in prison for a year. Starting with the local demolition derby, Junior runs smack into cheapskate promoters like Hackel (Ned Beatty) who doesn't respect a man on his way up. After success driving his own Mustang, Junior moves up to serious stock car racing in a Chevy and breaks into the highly "organized" big time as an independent. He goes nose-to-nose with Burton Colt, a pro racing owner (Ed Lauter) who insists on telling Junior how to race and won't let him use his own crew, which includes Junior's brother Wayne (Gary Busey). Adding to Junior's confusion is track secretary Marge (Valerie Perrine), a cutie who thinks Junior the best thing she ever met -- when she's not sleeping with Kyle Kingman (William Smith), Junior's top competition.
The car racing film has been one of the least rewarding genres, as screenplays have traditionally dragged in every cliché possible to enliven the monotonous exercise of autos going in circles on a race course. Drivers are alcoholics, or obsessed with women, revenge or competition. The sport is frequently saddled with existential concerns: "Why do you do this?" the female always asks, and the male stares at her like she just doesn't get it. Actors James Cagney, Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas and Mickey Rooney made race car pictures, none of which figure high on their resumés. Howard Hawks and A.I.P. fell on their faces with racing sagas in the 1960s. Finally, the road show epic Grand Prix killed the genre off for a few years, combining hot camera technology with a frankly terrible multi-hankie soap opera story that left audiences cold.
The genre came back in a big way in the early 70s, as moviemakers went for what it presumed to be less sophisticated audiences: people interested in cars. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman both made interesting racing pictures that were fairly realistic, before fantasy took over in moonshine comedies with Burt Reynolds. In the middle 1970s the reality of stock car racing was seldom touched. Even James Bond became a clown behind the wheel of trick cars that did loop-the-loops in mid-air.
The Last American Hero follows the breaking-in period of a backwoods punk as he forges into the world of pro stock-car racing, a familiar story completely overcome by good casting and straightforward storytelling. Elroy Jackson makes quality moonshine and knows that the judges and juries that send him to prison drink his product. He lets his older boy Junior help in the trade by running the liquor down from the hills in a souped-up Mustang. Necessity and determination gives Junior a refuse-to-be-caught attitude that pays off later when he goes pro.
The pro-racing life turns out to be a Pilgrim's Progress, even though Junior is too smart to fall into the obvious traps. His in-your-face challenge to cheapskate promoters pays off because he's always ready to jump to the next level of combat, whether it be against a stubborn track official (Gregory Walcott) or a take-no-prisoners pro racing organizer (Ed Lauter).
Jeff Bridges shows innate star sense, carrying the role with ease and keeping us firmly on Junior Jackson's side. Junior is loyal to his family and matures in his relationship to his mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald, in a rare appearance) and the home-town pals who help him with his cars. It's especially gratifying to see Junior re-connect with his father in prison. The hopefulness of Junior's track wins gives pop the strength to eventually quit his moonshining for the sake of a better future.
Junior also learns that people in the world of racing aren't as loyal as he might expect. Other racers have bad attitudes (Lane Smith is an amusingly disgruntled driver) but Junior is able to keep his eye on winning, even if it means constant warfare with his domineering sponsor. Junior also learns to get over a girl who catches his eye. Valerie Perrine's Madge seems just too good to be true, and she is. The Last American Hero stops short of setting up the usual grudge match between racers fighting over the same woman. Junior saves his anger for his boss and keeps his eye on the finish line.
Savant has about a ten-minute tolerance of racing scenes that The Last American Hero overcomes with ease. The races are exciting without being hyped with wild camera angles or showoff car wrecks; the typical end to a race comes when one's homemade engine just can't take the RPMs and burns out. There are no tricks on the race course. We find ourselves caring for Junior --- we want him to win.
Director Lamont Johnson has been a hot TV name since 1955. He broke out into film work many times but failed to score the big hits that would have kept him there, even though his pictures are nothing to sniff at: Kona Coast, The McKenzie Break, Lipstick, Cattle Annie and Little Britches. The Last American Hero is possibly his most satisfying theatrical film. His actors make their mark without a lot of fuss, and we believe in each and every one of them. The Jacksons seem like a fairly flaky clan when the movie begins but we can feel the family connections grow, without a single round of kisses or hugs. That's not the typical arrangement in the usual Southern drama with exaggerated down-home attitudes. I can imagine a Southern rural audience watching this picture and feeling flattered.
Fox's DVD of The Last American Hero is a sharp and colorful enhanced Panavision transfer that looks 100% better than old TV prints - the images now have compositions and we understand what's happening in the races. The widescreen transfer is actually on the flip side, with an (unwatched) Pan-Scan version included as well. Audio is in original mono and what I'm going to guess is a processed two-track stereo. Charles Fox's score has to share attention with reels of gutsy engine sound effects.
The one extra is an original trailer and teaser combo. I can't tell the difference, except that one is missing its voiceover narration track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last American Hero rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson