The Last American Hero Review
Wilkes County, North Carolina. Elroy Jackson Jr, known as “Junior” (Jeff Bridges), helps his father transport their homemade moonshine. However, one day Jackson Senior (Art Lund) is caught and sent to jail for a year for bootlegging. Needing to raise some money for the family, Junior applies to join the demolition derby circuit. He does well enough to attract the attention of a promoter (Ned Beatty) and soon he gets a chance to make his name on the NASCAR circuit.
The Last American Hero is based on an essay by Tom Wolfe, originally published in Esquire in 1965 and which can be found in his collection of the same year, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. William Roberts, also one of the film's producers, wrote the screenplay. Although the real Junior Johnson acted as a consultant on this film, you suspect that the changing of his name (to Junior Jackson) won't be the least of its fictionalisations. (For example, the film shows Junior's father being arrested for producing moonshine, when in fact it was Junior himself who was arrested and imprisoned.) Lamont Johnson's film is a well put together sports biopic with just sufficient edge to it to lift it above the norm.
Jeff Bridges played this role two years after The Last Picture Show had made his name and gave him an Oscar nomination. Bridges has never been an actor who looks radically different from one role to the next, changes in head and facial hair and weight notwithstanding. He's always Bridges, building a character not from the outside in, but from the inside out, as variations on the same basic template. Jackson, as played by him, has youthful cockiness down pat, and his move into competitive driving is as much opportunistic than it is from a love of the sport, though it's clear he does love that too. And he's not above enjoying some of the benefits of his success, namely the attentions of Marge (Valerie Perrine), a “Georgia peach” who bestows sexual favours on more than one young driver on the circuit. Perrine – in only her second film, following Slaughterhouse-Five - plays the role with a genuine sweetness, given that the character could easily have turned into a bimbo or a gold-digger. The film has a lot of warmth towards its characters, though doesn't forget to make them three-dimensional.
While the car-racing sequences are well staged, they don't overwhelm the rest of the story. Lamont Johnson, who began as an actor before moving into direction, worked regularly both on the small screen and the large one. While there are some notable films and TV movies in his CV (including the once-notorious, now all but invisible contribution to the mid-Seventies' rape-revenge cycle, Lipstick), a rather self-effacing competence seems to prevail. The Last American Hero isn't really a director's picture; it's one where the director had good material to begin with and delivered it well. Johnson has an uncredited role as a hotel clerk. He died in 2010 at the age of eighty-eight. The Last American Hero defines a sleeper: a modestly-scaled film that arrives without much fanfare but satisfies and lasts in the memory longer than many a bigger, flashier effort.
The song played over the opening credits, “I Got a Name” is performed by Jim Croce and made the Billboard Top Ten in August 1973. Sadly, Croce wasn't able to celebrate this success for long, as he died on 20 September of that year in a plane crash, aged just thirty. The song can also be heard on the soundtrack of The Ice Storm.
The Last American Hero is released by Second Sight on a single-layered DVD which is encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Some of the darker scenes don't show up very well, and skin tones tend towards the reddish, though that isn't far removed from what Seventies films do tend to look like. Grain is natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono and is clear and well-balanced. There are no subtitles for the hard of hearing, which is regrettable for the hard of hearing and anyone likely to have trouble with the Southern accents on display here.
There are no extras.
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