Saturday 1 July 2023

Movie Review: The Last American Hero (1973)

Also Known As: Hard Driver
Genre: Biographical Motor Racing Drama
Director: Lamont Johnson
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Valerie Perrine, Art Lund, Gary Busey, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ned Beatty, William Smith, Ed Lauter
Running Time: 95 minutes

Synopsis: In the southern United States, "Junior" Jackson (Jeff Bridges) drives hard and fast on backcountry roads, evading police while transporting whiskey illegally distilled by his father Elroy (Art Lund). When Elroy is yet again imprisoned, Junior has to support his mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and brother (Gary Busey). He enters his first demolition derby at the track run by Hackel (Ned Beatty), then graduates to NASCAR racing. Junior tangles with ruthless team owner Burton Colt (Ed Lauter) and fierce competitor Kingman (William Smith), and learns about big league romance with Marge (Valerie Perrine).

What Works Well: Based on the early racing experiences of NASCAR star Junior Johnson, director Lamont Johnson (no relation) soulfully evokes the American dream, where fame and fortune are within reach but only when talent finds a calling. Cinematographer George Silano enjoys the expanse of forgotten country roads littered with men itching for a chase or a fight, and later conveys motor racing thrills with plenty of dusty verve but never at the expense of the people behind the wheels. Jim Croce's I Got A Name perfectly complements the quest for purpose, while Jeff Bridges navigates Junior's growth with a balanced mix of arrogance, confidence, and when necessary, the humility to learn as fast as he drives.

What Does Not Work As Well: Other than Junior, all the other characters are confined to pre-defined notes. A longer running time would have allowed expanded roles for the many other grizzled veteran characters and deeper involvement from Junior's parents (Art Lund elevates every scene he is in, but Geraldine Fitzgerald is largely wasted). 

Conclusion: The satisfying roar of engines propels a classic rise-of-the-underdog story.

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