Tony Mastroianni Review Collection
The Last American Hero is a stock car actor
Cleveland Press February 1, 1971
"The Last American Hero" is a free adaptation of the early career of stock car racer Junior Johnson, so free that he has been renamed Junior Jackson in the movie.
Jeff Bridges plays the part with a mixture of affability and swagger, but there isn't much he can do for a character who changes little over the course of the movie.
In fact the movie itself changes little from one end to the other. Junior is portrayed as a back hills whisky runner whose adept handling of his souped-up auto gets him through police road blocks.
He is so good at it that the law, which tends to wink at some things, lands hard on his pop who is the fellow making the moonshine. The law doesn't like to be made to look foolish and that's what junior did.
So with legal expenses and pop in jail for a year, Junior turns his driving ability into cash, first in a demolition derby then in stock car racing.
There is no slow climb to the top. He is winner right from the start; kind of a mean, nasty guy out on the track but a winner nevertheless.
The only real conflict comes when he hits the big time and he finds he can't afford to keep his homemade car running against the models provided by wealthy backers.
The theme, which got lost somewhere back in the hills or out on the crowded track, is the one about the loner who finds he must compromise with the establishment.
When compromise does come it is anti-climactic and made to look as though the establishment gave in, not Junior.
There is a sub-plot about Junior's interest in a girl who turns out to be a race track groupie providing her own prizes to the winners. His disillusionment should have counted for more but like everything else in this movie it isn't developed. It just happens.
Aside from Bridges' efforts there is good work from former singer Art Lund as his father and Valerie Perrine as the girl. Geraldine Fitzgerald, as his mother, is stuck with a one-note, uninteresting role.