By David G. Firestone
Before there was Talladega Nights, there was Days of Thunder. Before Days of Thunder, there was The Last American Hero. Directed by Emmy Award winning director Lamont Johnson, The Last American Hero is loosely based on the life of NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson. The Last American Hero is the name of an essay written by Tom Wolfe that appeared in Esquire Magazine, and was also released in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”
The movie starts off with Jeff Bridges playing Elroy Jackson, Jr., who is called “Junior Jackson.” He is a hot shot moonshine runner, who gets his father arrested and his family still blown up because of his hot shot driving. In order to pay for his father’s legal bills and provide for his family, Junior decides to become a racing driver. First, he places third in a demolition derby, where he adds a spear to the front of his car. After that, he decides to try stock car racing.
He races in a number of dirt track races in Concord, North Carolina After winning a number of races, he gets in a fight, where the track promoter gets hurt, and tries to blackball him. Junior travels to Hickory, where he works his way into a race, but his car fails him, and he doesn’t finish the race. When he gets to the speedway, he meets Marge, an attractive woman who takes a liking to him, as she does a lot of race car drivers. A country boy trying to adapt to city life,the pressure of providing for his family and racing takes its toll on him. He is approached by Burton Colt, a team owner with an offer to drive, but he declines.
After his dad is released from jail, he scolds Junior about wanting to work in moonshine. Junior reconsiders the offer, and races one race for Burton. In the climatic scene, Junior ignores the orders from the team, and ends up winning the race. The movie ends with Marge leaving, and Junior going into the VIP area for a press conference.
The movie was a box office bomb, making $1,250,000 on a $2,130,000 budget. The movie is best remembered for the theme song “’I’ve Got a Name” by Jim Croce. In fact, the theme song is really one of the best parts of the movie. The Last American Hero had a decent plot, and really good acting. The cars and racing scenes all look good. Jeff Bridges is really strong in this movie, as are most of the other actors.
The movie could have been much better, but there are quite a few things that bring it down. There is way too much padding in the movie. There is a sequence that takes place at a K-Mart, where Junior tries to call home, but nobody answers. He then sees a booth to make your own record. He records a rambling message to his family, and then walks away. This scene is completely pointless, and could be edited out, and the movie wouldn’t lose anything.
The “romance” that takes place between Junior and Marge is even worse. It’s established quickly that Marge is a race car driver groupie, who will sleep with any and all race car drivers she comes across. The romantic subplot is a waste of time, and it heads nowhere. While all of the characters are somewhat deep, Marge is as two dimensional as it gets. She’s as shallow as a parking lot puddle, and really unlikable.
The ending almost seems as though there was more about to happen. The last scene features Burton and Junior haggling over a racing contract, and then Junior heads into the VIP room. The credits roll, fade to black. This seems like there was another scene that needed to take place, but that scene was either never shot, or edited out. It’s a really odd ending, that leaves a few plot lines unfinished.
All in all, it’s mediocre at best. It’s got a few good things, but overall, it could be a lot better. I’m going to give this movie a C-. Not disastrous, but a lot of room for improvement.
Next week, Wheel Reviews continues with a NASCAR DVD set.