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THE LAST AMERICAN HERO
DVD. Second Sight.

The Last American HeroProving that truth really can be stranger than fiction sometimes, The Last American Hero is based on the true story of Junior Johnson, a moonshine runner who became the stuff of legend for his skills in outdriving the police, using a variety of tricks (a fake siren and police light to clear roadblocks) and breathtaking moves (a 180 degree spin to suddenly double back on his pursuers) to escape the law. Johnson eventually transferred these skills to the NASCAR circuit, where he immediately became a resounding success, winning five races in his first year. A year later, he was arrested at his father’s moonshine still and sentenced to a year in prison. On release, he went right back to NASCAR and picked up where he left off.

The Last American Hero uses this story as its template, sticking closely in parts while floating off into the world of dramatic licence in others. Jeff Bridges plays Johnson, renamed Junior Jackson here, who we first see leading the police a merry dance in the rural backwaters. Unfortunately, his antics infuriate the police to the point where they bust his bootlegger father. When the old man is imprisoned for a year, Junior is determined to find the money to support the family and make the prison stay more comfortable. Starting with demolition derbies, he quickly moves up to the NASCAR circuit, where he struggles to fit in with more successful (and worldly) drivers, has a clumsy relationship with track slut Valerie Pennine (along with most of the other drivers, it seems) and finally has to accept that his independent, self-financed spirit will only take him so far in a world of corporate sponsorship and big money.

As an early (1973) example of the good ol’ boy, fast-car drivin’, law-breakin’ rogues that would pepper the decade from Smokey and the Bandit to The Cannonball Run to The Dukes of Hazzard and beyond, The Last American Hero runs the risk of seeming a little clichéd when seen today. That it holds up is a tribute to Bridges, who is impressively cocky, naïve and personable as the car-obsessed Jackson, and director Lamont Johnson – more usually found handling TV fare – who whips up some of the most engrossing race scenes you’ll see. I have no interest in cars and find motor racing a supremely pointless exercise in tedium, but the race scenes here are tense, dramatic and thrilling, with a real sense of danger about them.

But the film also impresses in the quieter moments – Bridges’ clumsy attempts at wooing the more wordly Perrine (whose sexually fickle character is vaguely justified in a monologue that suggests she’s just desperate to feel attractive), and his dealings with his family, most notably father Art Lund and brother Gary Busey.

What the film lacks is any real sense of conflict and struggle – Jackson butts heads with a couple of drivers and spins off the track in his first big race, but none of these elements are really expanded on much. However, I’m not sure this is such a bad thing; it simply means the film is avoiding the clichés of a story about the underdog struggling to the top and presenting a more realistic version of events.

It might be a stretch to say that The Last American Hero is a Seventies classic. But it’s certainly a worthy slice of feel good popular cinema from the period, and a rewarding viewing experience. ..

DAVID FLINT

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