Riding the Mustache: STROKER ACE

Too much stroking, not enough acing.

A film can have all the ingredients needed to create charm and charisma and maybe even a set of instructions for mixing them. But a weird alchemy goes into that kind of likability, and even with the greatest elements available, a filmmaker can still turn in a shit sandwich. Stroker Ace is a major shit sandwich.

It’s hard to say why that is, especially in contrast to Smokey and the Bandit, which works so well and shares so many elements with Stroker Ace. You have Burt Reynolds, Hal Needham, fast cars, a goofy sidekick, a girl, a theme song that plays throughout the entire film, and a proud display of redneckery all around.

And yet it contains none of that earlier film’s sense of fun. Stroker Ace is plenty bad all by itself, not just in comparison with Smokey and the Bandit, but it’s remarkable how much the two films vary in quality while looking so similar on paper. I still have the Smokey and the Bandit song stuck in my head from a week ago, for instance. Meanwhile, I watched Stroker Ace last night and can’t even remember what its song sounded like. The pervasive Kentucky Fried Chicken atmosphere of Smokey feels forced and much softer here. The car stuff isn’t nearly as cool or exciting. In the buddy department, we trade Jerry Reed for Jim Nabors. I can see how that might be a neutral or even a trade up in theory, but Nabors lacks Reed’s jolly camaraderie with Reynolds, sings too much, and doesn’t add any comic edge to the film. He’s just there, looking and sounding like Jim Nabors.

And then there’s Loni Anderson as Pembrook Feeney, the film’s romantic interest. I neglected to discuss Sally Field’s great performance in my Smokey and the Bandit writeup last week, and now I feel twice as bad for that oversight because Anderson makes Field feel twice as missed. Despite the fact that the two would eventually get married, Anderson and Reynolds don’t seem to have much in the way of chemistry. Part of that might be Anderson’s questionable stance as a human being. I’m still not convinced some lucky kid didn’t find a magic lamp and bring his sister’s Barbie to life. Anderson’s so weirdly artificial, even Burt can’t help but admonish her overly affected voice.

That brings us to Stroker Ace’s biggest problem, Stroker Ace himself. The character is an abject jerk, the end result of Reynold’s carefree good ol’ boy persona finally taken to a mean-spirited extreme. Not only does he make fun of Anderson’s voice, he also wants Nabors to feel bad about the way his mouth looks when he talks. He appears to have fucked and forgotten every woman in the South, and on top of all that, he doesn’t appear to be all that great a race car driver.

In perhaps the film’s most troubling yet defining scene, Stroker - in his endless attempt to woo the virginal Feeney - tricks the unsuspecting lady into drinking champagne. As a result, she decides she’s finally ready to sleep with him. When he comes to claim his prize, he finds her totally passed out on his bed. Thus, Stroker enters a serious moral dilemma - whether or not to rape her. After much deliberation, he decides to take a cold shower instead, but not before undressing her a little. This is all played as comedy.

The plot actually revolves around Stroker’s insatiable addiction to being a dumb asshole. As a race car driver, he has to have a sponsor, but as a rebel who cannot follow orders, sponsors willing to work with him are hard to keep. Stroker has one at the beginning of the film but loses him when he fills the guy’s car with wet concrete for trying to boss him around. His next sponsor, Clyde Torkle (played by Ned Beatty) makes him sign a huge contract - which Stroker doesn’t even bother to read - that demands tons of degrading public appearances from Stroker. He even has to drive a car that reads “Fastest Chicken in the South!” on the side.

This begins a battle of the dumb-wits. Stroker hates Torkle; Torkle owns Stroker under an unbeatable contract. The only answer is for Stroker to act like the biggest shithead possible in hopes of getting fired. Occasionally he actually races, and we get a little side plot about his rivalry with a fellow driver. He’s a snotty pretty boy, but I was kind of on his side anyway.

This is an awful film, and I don’t recommend it at all. Having said that, there is one wonderful moment where none other than Elvira hits on Jim Nabors. It’s not worth watching the whole movie for, but it is a notable event in the annals of human history.

Best Burt line: “Scrotum?” (The line isn’t all that great. It’s just really funny that Stroker doesn’t know what a scrotum is.)