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Joe Wizan

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.

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Review: 99 44/100% Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

The title sequence of John Frankenheimer’s new film utilizes Lichtenstein-like pop art images which ultimately prove to have been inappropriate and misleading indicators of what might follow. Whereas Lichtenstein and other pop artists use conventional symbols and forms (e.g., the comic strip) as a means of commenting upon those forms and upon the social and intellectual atmosphere from which they arise, Frankenheimer appears to be bound by the very conventions he wants to parody. Thus, the ingredients of 99 and 44/100% Dead include basic gangster genre stuff, ”romantic interest,” western overtones, a lot of violence, and a hush-hush attitude toward sex coupled strangely with 1960-type Hollywood male dominance themes. And the problem comes from Frankenheimer’s failure to demonstrate decisively that all, or at least some, of these elements are not to be taken at face value. By the time the predictable climax comes along and everyone bad is dead and the girls are saved, we have a strong suspicion that this is no parody at all, but rather, that Frankenheimer is actually out to elicit genuine emotions from his audience. And this simply will not do. It is like a comedian going through his act and then, at the end, telling a sad story and expecting us to take him seriously.

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Review: 99 and 44/100% Dead

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

The hyperchromatic comic-strip explosion terminating the credits sequence gives way to an American flag flapping over Puget Sound, and the camera half-crawls, half-pans toward the dock to pick up a black limousine sleeking toward us. The cut recalls the zany political surrealism of The Manchurian Candidate—generals snapping to attention to salute a brainwashed assassin, a fat Senator pinked through the milk carton by a silenced bullet—and what immediately follows also suggests the offbeat cinematic imagination that, eight or twelve years ago, enabled John Frankenheimer pictures to crackle. Two black-suited gangsters spill a corpse out of the backseat, his feet cased in concrete, and heave him into the drink; down the body sinks to land kachunk on the bottom among a submarine orchard of similarly weighted cadavers in various stages of corruption; and with them rests and rusts a nostalgia-ridden criminal landscape, a grand Guignol hall of memories: slot machines, chemin-de-fer tables, safes, skeleton-stuffed phonebooths and automobiles. It’s a giddily hilarious moment in spite of, more than because of, the rinkytink Mancini music on the soundtrack. And the grim comedy continues as the dumpers of the latest human detritus are themselves spilled into another part of the water mere moments later—in a less reputable corner of the graveyard.

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