Short Attention Span Review: The Last American Hero (1973)
The Last American Hero is a plucky movie, much like its hero. It is determined to win the race, but it doesn't try to earn points for likability. Those expecting a warm and fuzzy sports movie where we root for a promising upstart and cheer his eventual success may be a bit puzzled by this one. Yes, it is about a promising upstart, and the movie does conclude with Jeff Bridges finally capturing the checkered flag as Junior Jackson. Yet Jackson (closely modeled after famed stock car racer Junior Johnson) isn't the warm and fuzzy type, and his win at all costs attitude and his take no shit demeanor are front and center while he begrudgingly offers up a few displays of innocence and good old boy charm. The filmmaking is authentic and invigorating; this looks and feels like the real thing, whether we're watching Jackson's early days running moonshine or his initial forays into auto racing. In addition to Bridges, who clearly had the makings of a star at this age, we get to see young Gary Busey shine and marvel at B movie legend William Smith, who damn near steals the show in what almost amounts to a bit part. Smith plays the antagonist, who is modeled after Richard Petty and is depicted as both formidable and vulnerable, and far too damn likable in spite of any flaws to be anything but a friendly rival. The movie speeds along, and while it takes us on a journey and fleshes out its characters, it just doesn't seem as satisfying as it should be. Maybe that is because Junior is so country tough and good old-fashioned stubborn that none of the various pitfalls he encounters shake him. Maybe it's because he is so damn determined to force his way into victory lane that neither he nor we get much of a chance to savor his successes. Maybe it's both. And, while that may not make for a cinematic experience a la Rocky or Rudy, it does ring true, and one is inclined to believe that this motion picture adequately conveys Tom Wolfe's writings about Junior Johnson. So, while it may not exactly lift your spirits, The Last American Hero is an insightful and captivating film, and it is surely worth a watch.
Final Grade: B
|A young Jeff Bridges displays star power in a lead role that is more about grit and determination than likability.|