The Last American Hero, 1973.
Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty, Gary Busey and Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Elroy ‘Junior’ Jackson helps his bootlegger father transport moonshine. After accidentally getting his father arrested, Junior looks at raising money through demolition derby and NASCAR racing to raise the cash needed to free his father.
I find it hard to look at Jeff Bridges in his pre-beard days. There is this haunting vacuum of space on his chin when he pops up clean shaven. It almost comes to the point where I have to draw a beard on my screen to address this problem. Even his voice suggests he needs a beard. Ironically, in The Last American Hero, a beard would have really suited his character, what with him being a hillbilly and all.
Jeff Bridges plays Elroy ‘Junior’ Jackson, a son of a bootlegger who can drive a car through just about anything. Unfortunately, after driving a car through a police blockade, they arrest his father and send him in for a year in prison. But Junior doesn’t give up there, oh no! Exploiting his knack for the clutch, he enters himself into the demolition derby circuit to raise enough money to free his father. A stock car promoter (Ned Beatty looking about as trucker as you can get) helps him move up to the NASCAR circuit.
So far, a typical underdog set up. The carrot is dangling in front of Junior’s face with little else to distract him. Well, apart from a (sort of) crush and a (sort of) antagonist. Hickory, as Junior describes, is “a place where the cars are fast and the women are faster”. The fast woman in question is Marge (Valerie Perrine looking modestly attractive) and seems to jump from one bed to the other when the camera turns away. There isn’t a clear antagonist throughout the entire film, so Junior feels like he hasn’t got anything going against him.
Going for the movie, however, are the car scenes. Obviously, these are the bread and butter of the flick, but they are genuinely hair-raising to watch. Think of The French Connection crossed with Dukes of Hazzard. At times, I was checking myself to see if I was buckled in. Director Lamont Johnson didn’t seem to be afraid of strapping a camera to the front of the car during the demolition derby scene. The man is either insane or blessed with a bigger budget than expected.
Whilst it’s hardly an all time classic, The Last American Hero is an enjoyable Southern yarn for fans of NASCAR and muscle cars in general. Fresh faced Jeff Bridges comes across as quaint and charming, but the rest of the cast seem to feel a bit two-dimensional at times. A typical underdog movie that doesn’t race far away from the formula.
The Last American Hero is released on DVD on September 12th.
Will Preston is a freelance writer from Portsmouth. He writes for various blogs (including his own website) and makes short films.
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