Jeff Bridges’ career-long rebellious streak finds an early expression in this film, based on the Tom Wolfe story of the same title, a profile of 1950s and ’60s NASCAR star Junior Johnson. In this lightly fictionalized bio, the character is known as Junior Jackson; like the real racer, he learns his racing skills from his daddy, a moonshiner frequently on the run from the law. Jackson becomes a pro racer initially to raise money for his dad’s legal defense (he starts out on the demolition derby circuit), but soon he’s a big stock-car racing star, one who chafes against the sport’s heavy influence of corporate money.
Yep, there’s no clear antagonist in this movie, just The Man, which wasn’t unusual in movies of the late ’60s and early ’70s but may prove less than satisfying to modern viewers weaned on the likes of Days of Thunder. Still, the driving sequences are suitably intense, with director Lamont Johnson strapping cameras to the front of cars in a way that convincingly puts the viewer inside the action, especially in the demo derby scenes. He must have destroyed a few perfectly good cameras that way. The movie helped make a hit out of the Jim Croce anthem “I Got a Name,” which nicely sums up the Jackson character’s air of restlessness and Dixie-bred defiance.
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