Sunday, August 28, 2016

#2,187. The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977)

Directed By: John Leone

Starring: Henry Fonda, Eileen Brennan, Austin Pendleton

Tag line: "You're in for the ride of a lifetime!"

Trivia: Diana House, who plays a prostitute in this film, was the Playboy Playmate of the Month for January 1976

Looking at the DVD cover for The Great Smokey Roadblock, you’d think the movie was a madcap road comedy, which, I suppose, it is in a way. But thanks to its fine cast headed up by Henry Fonda, this 1977 film offers a bit more besides.

John Howard (Fonda), known as Elegant John to his friends and admirers, was one of the most reliable truckers to ever hit the open road (in 40 years, he never missed a deadline). Unfortunately, time and cancer have caught up with Elegant John, whose most recent address has been a hospital bed. Before he dies, John wants to make one last cross-country run, so, after breaking out of the hospital and stealing back his truck (it had been repossessed by the bank), he sets off looking for work. Along the way, he picks up Beebo Crozier (a young Robert Englund), a former soldier who is heading to Gainesville, Florida. Yet, even with a new assistant, Elegant John can’t seem to find anyone willing to take a chance on him (it doesn’t help matters that an all-points bulletin has been sent to every policeman from the Pacific to the Atlantic, with orders to arrest John on-sight for grand theft auto).

But just when it looked as if John might not get his final run, his old pal / longtime girlfriend Penelope (Eileen Brennan) comes to the rescue. A Madame who has been ordered out of town by the cops, Penelope and her six hookers (played by Susan Sarandon, Diana House, Melanie Mayron, Mews Small, Leigh French, and Valerie Curtin) pack up their belongings, jump into the back of Elegant John’s truck, and set off for North Carolina, where the ladies hope to set up shop once again. Despite the fact he’s a wanted man, John is determined to finish his run and keep his professional reputation intact. But will his illness catch up with him before he reaches the end of the line?

Most of the comedy in The Great Smokey Roadblock (also released as The Last of the Cowboys) comes courtesy of the bizarre characters that John and his “cargo” meet during their long journey, including a former radio DJ (John Byner); a pot-smoking lunatic (Austin Pendleton); and a small-town sheriff hoping to get his name in the papers (Dub Taylor). The movie is also interesting in that it gives us an early look at both Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Susan Sarandon (Atlantic City, Bull Durham), whose characters eventually fall in love with each other; and WKRP in Cincinnati alum Gary Sandy appears in a few scenes as an arrogant cowboy who gives Elegant John a hard time. Rounding out the supporting cast is the always-reliable Eileen Brennan (Private Benjamin, Jeepers Creepers) as John’s main squeeze, Valerie Curtin (All the President’s Men, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) as the hooker with a bad attitude, and former Playboy Playmate Diana House, the lone member of Ms. Penelope’s entourage who shows a little skin (aside from one very brief sex scene and some coarse language, The Great Smokey Roadblock is a fairly inoffensive film).

Along with the laughs, The Great Smokey Roadblock offers a bit of drama and even a little pathos, thanks in large part to Henry Fonda, who plays it straight the entire way. From start to finish, his Elegant John is a stand-up guy, willing to help others in their time of need, and in one dramatic scene we see how far his illness has progressed, and how painful his condition has become. He may have broken the law at the outset (by stealing back his truck), but he’s such a likable fella that we root like hell for him to make it. The Great Smokey Roadblock does have its share of laughs (Byner and Pendleton, who don’t turn up until the final third of the movie, are pretty damn funny), but thanks to Henry Fonda, it also gives audiences a folk hero they’re sure to admire.

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