Burt Reynolds is hotshot NASCAR driver Stroker Ace. He’s arrogant, cocky and is a born winner! Put him behind the wheel and he’ll stop at nothing to reach the finish line first. With his pal and expert mechanic Jim Nabors working automotive magic under the hood, racing trophies are guaranteed. They’re motto is “Screw second!”
Stroker ends up losing his corporate sponsor and recklessly signs with fried chicken mogul Clyde Torkel (Ned Beatty). Stroker quickly learns he has signed a contract with the devil!
Torkel wants to use Stroker as the face of his Chicken Pit fast-food restaurants and makes him do embarrassing promotional gimmicks, which includes dressing up like a chicken and having the slogan “The Fastest Chicken in the South” plastered on his race car. The ironclad contract Stroker signed forces him to adhere to any of Torkel’s demeaning demands.
Meanwhile, Stroker becomes smitten with Torkel’s public relations representative, the virginal, sweet and bombshell looking Pembroke Feeny (Loni Anderson). Having her tag along to all his new chicken duties perhaps will give Stroker time to win her heart.
Maybe he’ll also be able to defeat racing adversary Parker Stevenson, win the final race, get out from under Torkel’s thumb, get his freedom back, enjoy some bar fights, do some silly comedy, give us his classic ‘Burt laugh’ and do everything else fans would expect to see in a Hal Needham directed Burt Reynolds car comedy.
This one is a real stinker folks!
First let me talk a bit about Stroker Ace in the context of Burt’s career – which is actually much more interesting and compelling than anything in the actual film itself.
Coming into Stroker Ace Burt had been voted the most popular star for the last five years. I’m not sure younger moviegoers can get a sense of what a crowd pleasing celebrity he was during his peak years. Audiences loved him, he was a huge box office draw and kept churning out the hits.
He was in his late forties at this point and rather than try to take a more dramatic turn, stretch himself and take a risk by accepting writer/director Jim Brooks’ offer of doing Terms of Endearment – in a part that Brooks specifically wrote for him – Burt passed on it.
Burt decided to stick with his old buddy Needham, play a role that he felt was more of what his fans wanted to see from him, be in a type of movie that he had found success in the past and that seemingly appeared more of a guaranteed hit. So, he proceeded to make another car comedy with Needham.
Big mistake. Terms of Endearment was the box office hit winning over audiences and critics. It would go onto win five Academy Awards. Burt’s replacement in the film Jack Nicholson went onto win his second Oscar for his performance.
Meanwhile, Stroker Ace would come out. It became a notorious flop and knocked Burt off his Hollywood pedestal that he enjoyed throughout much of the 1970’s and early 80’s.
This is where many fans pinpointed the moment when Burt’s film career began a nosedive that never recovered. Reynolds’ himself later admitted that making Stroker Ace was a mistake, that by doing it it lost him a lot of his fans and helped end his successful film career. It was just one too many ‘Needham car movies’. He should have accepted that Terms of Endearment offer.
Stroker Ace deserved to bomb. It’s a lazy comedy with zero laughs. Most of the jokes are tired and witless that won’t make you even crack a smile. There’s really not much of anything to recommend about Stroker Ace. Unless your idea of laugh out loud comedy is seeing Reynolds wear a chicken costume.
It’s not even so bad you can find some entertainment from it. It’s all just rather dull. The charisma that Burt had that attracted audiences was not enough to carry an entire movie on its own. And really, his Stroker character is not very likable and he comes off more obnoxious throughout.
None of the so-called ‘chicken gags’ are even remotely funny. The expected car crash stunts are completely forgettable.
Probably the most memorable scene out of Stroker Ace, and only because it’s so awkward, is when Burt debates whether to date rape a passed out Loni.
Yeah. That scene wouldn’t fly today or be played for laughs. I can’t think of an actor today who would do that scene and end with the line, “Who would know?” and smile at the camera. It was a much different time back in 1983 and different place in a Hal Needham comedy.
You know a comedy is in trouble when even the inclusion of the patented ‘Needham outtakes’ over the closing credits can’t even elicit a chuckle. I almost get the impression everyone had about as much fun making the movie as audiences did watching it.
Loni looks stunning, but she’s more window dressing than providing any comedy or creating sparks with Burt. Which is strange when you think back on it. Burt and Loni would later marry and famously have a brutal divorce that the tabloids devoured for years. You might think early on you’d see some romantic magic spill off the screen between the two, but I see no evidence of anything special between them watching the film. Burt had much better chemistry with some of this other leading ladies, like Sally Field and Dolly Parton.
There’s no question Loni is a stunning. She’s an almost other worldly beauty that was designed to be on pinup posters. When I see her it’s like looking at a real life buxom Barbie doll.
While she was actually really good playing Jennifer the secretary on WKRP in Cincinnati, I’m not too surprised she didn’t have a much of a film career. I just can’t think of what roles she would play. I suppose she could’ve tried to dress down, lose her glamorous looks and try a dramatic role much like Farrah Fawcett and Jessica Lange had done to prove their acting chops. But I just can’t picture Loni ever succeeding with that or seeing any indication she had the talent something like that off.
Jim Nabors brings his ‘oh shucks’ persona as Stroker’s pal and mechanic. Again nothing there to speak of. Ned Beatty reaches a low point clowning around acting very animated as Stroker’s chicken boss owner. My only guess is that they either did this for the paycheck or to just use it as a chance to hang out with Burt or thought it would be some easy work. They also might’ve thought the movie was going to be a hit.
Bubba Smith showing up in this is forgivable, since it probably was one of the few movie offers he got at the time. It would be the following year when he’d find better success in the Police Academy series. Can you imagine that being part of Police Academy was a step up from Stroker Ace?
Parker Stevenson…..is just here. There’s really little reason he’s around other than to have Burt crack wise to him a few times and have him be the competing car in the big final race.
Honestly, I forgot about his character whenever he wasn’t around. I guess they thought they needed Burt to have a macho conflict with someone, so they stuck in his character.
Oh yeah, did I mention Elvira herself shows up for absolutely no reason. She just shows up and flirts with Nabors in a scene. I have no idea what that was about. Maybe she was just visiting the set and they decided to stick her in this. Really odd. Stroker Ace does mark her film debut, so the movie can be noted for that.
The race car scenes are a patchwork of television footage of crowd scenes and accidents that are unconvincingly cut in with Reynolds. It is extremely boring to watch. Even the final race where everything is meant to be on the line, the music is coming up, commentators are excitedly talking, the crowd is cheering and we’re supposed to be rooting for Stroker could very well put you to sleep.
How bad does it get? At one point during the climactic final race the number 33 car spins out and is meant to crash – cut to racing footage of a racecar with the number 77 on it spinning out and crashing.
Yep, it’s really that bad. I guess they thought no one would notice that it’s a completely different car. It’s a pretty dramatic car crash, so maybe it was just cheaper to use the footage of it than having to actually do a car crash on their own.
It’s kind of surprising how amateurish parts of the movie look. This had to be a big production, a movie with a lot of money behind it, Burt starring in it, Warner Bros. and Universal probably expected it to be a big box office hit and it comes off as so low grade. Maybe they spent all the money on the cars and filming at famous race tracks.
I suppose race car fans might enjoy some of Stroker Ace. There’s cameos of famed drivers and commentators sprinkled throughout and it does show off some of that vintage race footage in spots. Country star Charlie Daniels provides the Stroker Ace theme song, so some might enjoy that tune. It’s certainly not as good as Jerry Reed’s contributions to the Smokey and the Bandit films. I’m really grasping to find some positives here.
So yeah, Stroker Ace lays a huge egg.
Regretfully the following year Burt reteamed with Needham to do Cannonball Run 2 – another huge misstep. I still debate whether Stroker Ace is worse than Cannonball Run 2.
I’d probably say Cannonball Run 2 is a worse movie, but I can get more aggravated enjoyment from it just because it reaches that ‘it’s so unbelievably bad it’s shocking to see’ level. Plus, the huge cast it had provides a bit more interest and ‘what were they thinking head-shaking’ moments. Stroker Ace is just one big head-shake.
I recall watching Stroker Ace on cable in the 80’s and even being a kid thinking it was a lousy movie. It hasn’t aged any better since then. It stunk when it came out and it still stinks. A true Burt low point.
The Stroker Ace theme song by The Charlie Daniels Band