By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: He follows his dream.
Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) works in his family’s moonshine business as a driver who transports the liquor and uses his superior driving skills especially his patented ‘bootlegger-turn’ in which to avoid capture he gets the vehicle to make a 180-degree turn by using the emergency brake, which then allows his car to go speeding off in the opposite direction. However, the authorities are able to catch-up with his father (Art Lund) and they throw him in jail for 11-months. With no moonshine business Junior is forced to find other means for an income, so he decides to try and turn his driving skills into a profit venture by entering into a demolition derby run by Hackel (Ned Beatty). He does well in this and eventually moves up to the higher levels and makes enough money for him to decide on turning it into his career, but his family does not approve as they feel it’s too dangerous. Junior is also forced to buy his own race car and pay for his own pit crew, which causes him to go back into the bootlegging business as a runner all to the disapproval of his father who feels it will just lead Junior into the same prison that he was in.
Overall this is one of the best bio’s out there and impeccably filmed and edited by actor-turned-director Lamont Johnson, who appears briefly as a hotel clerk. Johnson’s directing career was a bit spotty, he also did notorious clunkers like Lipstick and Somebody Killer Her Husband, but this one is virtually flawless and there’s very little to be critical about on the technical end. The racing footage is both intense and exciting and one of the few racing movies where I was able to follow the race as a whole and not just be bombarded with a lot of jump cuts. I also appreciated how it captures the pit stops and the different conversations that the driver has with his crew during these moments and how sometimes this can be just as intense in its own way. The on-locations shooting done in and around Hickory, North Carolina as well as some of the neighboring race tracks during the fall of 1972 helps bring home both the ambiance and beauty of the region.
For me though what really stood out was Junior’s relationship with his family and how they were not supportive, at least initially, to his dreams as a racer and forcing him to have to pursue it on his own. Many times people who have ambitious goals don’t always have their friends and family on the same page with it and the road to success can definitely have its share of loneliness while also testing one’s own inner fortitude. One of my favorite scenes, that goes along with this theme, is when Junior is inside a K-mart and comes upon a recording booth that allows him to make a voice tape message that can be sent via the mail to one’s family or friends. Junior conveys into the microphone what he wants to say to his family, but ultimately seems to be talking more to himself than them, as a kind of self therapy to release the inner tensions that he’s been feeling, and subsequently never actually sends it out.
The acting is top-notch particularly by Bridges. Normally he’s good at playing mellow, level-headed characters, but here does well as someone who at times is quite volatile and caustic. There’s great support by Beatty as an unscrupulous race track owner, Ed Lauter as a highly competitive owner of a competing racing teams as well as Valerie Perrine as a woman who enjoys bed-hopping between different men, sometimes with those who are friends with each other, and yet completely oblivious with the drama and tensions that this creates. William Smith is good as a competing racer and while his part is small the scene where he walks in on Junior sleeping with his girl (Perrine) and the response that he gives is great. I thought Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays Junior’s mother, was excellent and her Irish accent somehow effectively made to sound southern, but she should’ve been given more screen time.
The story is based on an Esquire article written by Tom Wolfe that was entitled ‘The Last American Hero was Junior Jackson. Yes!’, which in turn was based on NASCAR racing champion Junior Jackson (1931-2019) who also served as the film’s technical advisor. The movies pretty much stays with the actual account, but does change one pivotal point in that it has the father going to jail when in reality it was Junior who was sentenced to 11-months in 1956. Why this was changed I don’t know, but it usually helps the viewer become more emotionally connected to the protagonist when they see them going through the hardship versus someone else, so having Bridges spend time in the slammer would’ve made more sense. The film is also famous for its theme song ‘I Got a Name’ sung by Jim Croce, but this song has been played so much on oldies radio that one no longer connects it with the film and in fact when it does get played it takes you out of the movie because it reminds you of somewhere else where you’ve first heard it, which most likely wasn’t this movie.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: July 27, 1973
Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes
Director: Lamont Johnson
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube