Review: The Last American Hero

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Last American Hero is an entertaining genre picture with a serious-sounding title, and so it runs the risk of being underrated in some quarters and overrated in others. Its vision is more casual than the title would imply, yet richer than its unadorned folksiness pretends. First and foremost, it is a highly charged but straightforward story about a young stockcar racer (Jeff Bridges) riding skill, arrogance, and need into the big money. Lamont Johnson and crew prove responsive to both the racing scene and the cars themselves, and give a sense of the action that is close to the excitement but free of adulatory packaging. Although the title suggests the possibility of an exercise in the pre-digested, pre-fab cynicism which seems to be a staple of contemporary American cinema, this action film focuses on its people as much as its action, and a good deal of its power comes from the way its sharply etched characters develop in various convincingly observed milieux. Valerie Perrine as a sort of stockcar groupie overcompensating for a lonely adolescence, Gary Busey as Bridges’s oafish yet alert brother, Art Lund as their wearily rugged-individualist father, and Ed Lauter as a sinuously efficacious racing manager are all major collaborators in enlivening and authenticating a project that might easily have been routine.

William Roberts’s script helps too by having characters and situations develop further and more fully than you’d expect in even a revisionist genre picture. The Perrine character, for example, keeps coming back and changing even after Bridges knows what she’s up to and knows she knows he knows. Likewise, a seemingly predictable scene in which Bridges deals with an overly bold pal’s unkind remarks surprises by taking a pace all its own and moving from camaraderie through humiliation and back again. Jeff Bridges’s performance is mostly very engaging, except for occasional lapses when the hip and tiny bit too self-assured sides of his personality sneak through in places not exactly right for the character. Nevertheless, he further establishes himself as a movie presence with a special authority that just might make him into a major genre figure. The only pretentious things about the film are its title, some too-pat wisecracks, and an apparently obligatory pop song (by the late Jim Croce) inserted at a moment where it says more than needs to be said about the title character. The film ends with one of the most expressive freezeframe images (and one of the few good ones) I’ve seen—a small stroke of technique that seems exactly right for a film which has managed the (currently) rare feat of having enough of a grasp on living to keep the ironies from running away with the show. The Last American Hero also confirms reports (mostly from The Village Voice) of Lamont Johnson’s special touch with more or less traditional film genres. How much of this film’s quality is due to him remains to be seen, but any theater that brings his The McKenzie Break, The Groundstar Conspiracy or You’ll Like My Mother within reach is gonna get my money.

THE LAST AMERICAN HERO
Direction: Lamont Johnson. Screenplay: William Roberts, after a series of articles by Tom Wolfe. Cinematography: George Silano. Consultant and Technical Adviser: Junior Johnson. Music: Charles Fox. Production: William Roberts, John Cutts; Executive: Joe Wizan.
The Players: Jeff Bridges, Valerie Perrine, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ned Beatty, Gary Busey, Art Lund, Ed Lauter.

Copyright © 1973 Peter Hogue