It’s about a young hot-dogger named Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) who’s more or less content to smuggle illegal hooch until he gets pinched and his soul-weary dad (Art Lund) persuades him to think twice. Jackson eventually uses his car-racing skills to break into stock-car racing. Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ed Lauter, Gary Busey and Valerie Perrine costar.
Hero was widely admired (nearly all the serious film critics got behind it, especially Pauline Kael). And its influence in Hollywood circles seems hard to deny, its commercial failure aside, for the simple fact that it was the only backwoods-moonshine movie at the time that was seriously respected for what it was, as opposed to being (nominally) respected for what it earned.
Hero (aka Hard Driver) was loosely based on Tom Wolfe’s legendary 1965 Esquire article about one-time moonshine smuggler and stock-car racer Junior Johnson.
Kael: “Sometimes, just on his own, Jeff Bridges is enough to make a picture worth seeing, and he’s never before been used so fully, or in a way so integral to a film’s conception, [as in The Last American Hero]. Only twenty-two when this picture was shot, he may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived; physically, it’s as if he had spent his life in the occupation of each character. He’s the most American — the loosest — of all the young actors, unencumbered by stage diction and the stiff, emasculated poses of most juveniles. [He] just moves into a role and lives in it—so deep in it that the little things seem to come straight from the character’s soul.
“Bridges’ Junior Jackson is a cocky Huck Finn in the age of Detroit: impulsive, dogged, and self-sufficient; sure enough of himself to show his rank, shrewd enough to know where he’s outranked. In a monologue scene (possibly suggested by Godard’s Masculine Feminine), Junior, away from home for a race and feeling sentimental, uses a make-your-own-record machine to tell his family he’s thinking of them and loves them; then, realizing he’s beyond this kind of kid stuff, he throws the record away. The quality of Bridges’ acting in this scene enlarges the meaning of the movie, yet he doesn’t seem to be using anything more than a few shrugs and half-smothered words.”