My World of Flops Chicken Run Case File #126/My Year of Flops #23 Stroker Ace (1983)
The appallingly awful 1983 racing comedy Stroker Ace has the unfortunate distinction of being the movie Burt Reynolds chose over the role in Terms of Endearment that would win Jack Nicholson an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It has the equally regrettable distinction of being the movie that thought it would be funny, and good, and not an affront to both the actor’s dignity and common decency, to put its star in a chicken suit for multiple scenes.
I don’t give a fuck about traditional notions of masculinity. That shit is overwhelming bullshit, toxic, a rigid, stupid, stubborn lie. But some things are sacred. Some things are just not done for the sake of common decency. For example, you do not put James Bond in clown make-up even if it’s he’s being played by Roger Moore, who seems like the kind of guy who would totally be up for it if a Bond script called on Bond to go undercover in the Phillie Phanatic costume for an entire act. And you most assuredly don’t put Burt Reynolds, alpha male of the Western world, top box-office attraction for a solid half decade, and an enduring icon of stoic, macho American masculinity in a goddamn chicken suit.
If you do put Burt Reynolds in a chicken suit in flagrant violation of God’s laws and the will of the universe, that shit better be fucking funny. Hilarious. Gut-busting. The kind of audacious set-piece that has audiences howling, a gag for the ages. If you’re going to put Burt Reynolds in a chicken suit it better be worth the full-on assault to the actor’s battered integrity.
Needless to say, the SEVERAL chicken suit scenes in Stroker Ace are not hilarious. They aren’t even a little bit funny. Instead of laughter, they just inspire pity towards Burt Reynolds the actor rather than Stroker Ace the god-awful fictional film character.
When I say god-awful I mean both that Stroker behaves in a way that’s disgusting and deplorable and makes it impossible to root for him and also that the title character is an abysmal protagonist, one-dimensional, unfunny and so utterly devoid of charm that not even Burt Reynolds can redeem him or make him likable.
Even as a child, the man who would grow up, regrettably, to be hotshot a NASCAR champion turned emasculated Chicken franchise pitchman gives off a major league creep vibe. Stroker Ace opens with Stroker as a gum-smacking, preening, narcissistic child who gets a tantalizing glimpse of the fast life of nitro-boosted racing and low level criminality when a friend’s bootlegging father resorts to illegal methods to outrun Smokey. While the moonshine-making papa pumps the gas we learn of Stroker Ace and his exploits from the Charlie Daniels Band.
For three minutes or so, Stroker Ace is Southern-fried, agreeably brain dead dumb fun as Charlie Daniels spins a tall tale of a folk legend of a racer who “Was a real hot shot and he bragged a lot, but man that fool could drive/'Cause he loved the feel of the steering wheel/And the girls with bedroom eyes/And in a race of time or a bar room fight/ Stroker stole the show/A back stretch blazer, a real hell raiser and a racetrack Romeo.”
Then, alas, we meet the aforementioned back stretch blazer, real hell raiser and racetrack Romeo as an obnoxious grown man played by a sleepwalking Reynolds on autopilot. He’s a hotshot NASCAR champion with a girl in every city, Jim Nabors as Lugs, his mechanic and spiritual crooning-sidekick and a cigar-chomping “boss” in the form of Jim Catty (Warren Stevens) from Zenon Oil Stoker hates so much that in an early scene he pulls what can only be described as a “murder prank” where he arranges to have concrete poured into the back seat of a locked car that Jim is inside until it’s neck high and the horrified man is understandably terrified of dying an unusually horrible, sadistic death.
That is absolutely the last we see of a man who is horrible, yes, but does not deserve to be murdered in such a horrifying way. A less psychotic movie would do something, ANYTHING to indicate that the boss Stroker tried to bury alive in concrete survived Stroker’s prank/murder attempt and that our already morally repellent protagonist, while he may have many, many fatal flaws, being a remorseless murderer is not one of them. We’d see Jim Catty in a full-body cast hollering that he’s lucky he didn’t press charges at Stroker for, you know, trying to kill him. Not Stroker Ace. We never see this man again. He’s never even mentioned again.
The only consequence Stroker Ace faces for trying to turn the asshole he races for into the squishy human center of a giant block of concrete is a reputation for being tough to work with, and also, presumably, murder. Stroker is so toxic in the racing world that seemingly the only sponsor who will work with him is Clyde Torkel (Ned Beatty from Mikey & Nicky), the fat-fingered vulgarian behind Chicken Pit, a franchise that specializes in fried chicken and public humiliation.
Stroker falls instantly into a deep state of lust with Pembrook Feeny (Loni Anderson), Chicken Pit’s new director of marketing and public relations, and a church-going Sunday school teacher whose virginity he becomes obsessed with taking by any means necessary. Like way too many films of the 1970s and 80s, Stroker Ace is full of what it clearly considers “Sexy Pranks” that today look less like good, innocent, ribald fun than sexual harassment/assault.
Stroker’s “Sexy Pranks” include “negging” Pembrook by asking her if her voice is real or a weird affectation, greeting his new coworker naked alongside his latest anonymous sexual conquest, trying to trick the sober bible-thumper into getting drunk so that he can take advantage of her sexually and contemplating molesting Pembrook when he finds her passed out on her bed.
As the film’s Wikipedia page admiringly notes, “One night, after getting her drunk on champagne, (Stroker Ace) removes her clothing and has a chance to take advantage of her, but decides against it.” What a mensch! Who wouldn’t be willing to forgive Stroker all manner of sexual harassment and murder attempts if he nobly draws the line at sexually assaulting a sleeping woman?
As soon as he discovers that his coworker is super-sexy yet somehow has never had sex, Stroker peppers her with questions about her sex life, or rather lack thereof, but it’s okay because literally everything he does is single-mindedly designed to get Stroker laid.
Stroker Ace is of the mindset that it’s fine for Stroker to lie to Pembrook and get her drunk and sexually harass her as long as it’s in the service of trying to trick her into giving up her virginity.
Stroker is so intent on seducing Pembrook that he puts up with being made to wear a humiliating chicken suit not just in commercials but also in public appearances and even during a race. I’m not a professional race car driver. I don’t even know how to drive but I’m guessing driving a NASCAR vehicle while wearing a bulky, uncomfortable, undoubtedly super-hot chicken suit would hamper your performance to the point that you would probably die and take racers not dressed in chicken suits with you.
Stroker Ace never feels the need to explain why the monsters at Chicken Pit imagine that nothing will sell chicken quite like an icon of rugged masculinity like Stroker embarking on a long, soul-crushing parade of public humiliation centered on him wearing a chicken suit in many different contexts, each more embarrassing than the last.
If Stroker perished fulfilling his soul-crushing contractual obligations to Chicken Pit he at least would have had the consolation that he died as he lived: inexplicably wearing a chicken suit that serves no purpose but to embarrass him and possibly imperil his life.
This would be like Nike deciding that the best way for them to exploit Michael Jordan’s unprecedented popularity and dominance as possibly the greatest basketball player of all time in the mid-1980s would be to make him wear a diaper and a baby bonnet in all of his commercials and all of his public appearances while giving him dialogue like, “The only thing I like better than absolutely nailing a tomahawk dunk or sinking a three pointer is making a giant boom boom in my diapy! Whether you’re thinking of driving the lane or dropping a deuce in your adult-sized diaper, Just do it!”
If Jordan was in a Stroker Ace type situation, he’d even have to play in his signature diaper/baby bonnet get up. I doubt Jordan would be the legend we know and revere today if he had to play in a giant onesie with the words “I just pooped myself” on it.
I’m not sure how publicly humiliating Michael Jordan by making him dress up and act like an adult baby in public would sell basketball shoes. I suspect that approach would prove far less successful than highlighting Jordan’s beauty, grace, pure athleticism and status as a preeminent American icon. I similarly doubt that putting Stoker Ace in a humiliating chicken suit will move more buckets of extra crispy chicken than letting him look cool and sexy and macho while eating delicious chicken.
To make things even more confusing, Pembrook is the director of marketing and public relations for Chicken Pit yet all of the chain’s ideas involving humiliating its celebrity spokesman seem to have originated exclusively from its owner. That makes me wonder what the hell Pembrook’s job consists of other than fending off sexual advances from horny coworkers and her horny boss.
Anderson does what she can with a thankless role, which is nothing. She at least has the distinction of being the hero’s leading lady onscreen and off. The same cannot be said of Cassandra Peterson. The campy sexpot shows up in Elvira garb and make-up yet is billed only as “Girl with Lugs.”
When she discovers that Lugs is a mechanic she teases seductively, “I like mechanics! They know how to tinker with things for hours, make them go fast!”
Elvira is of course the queen of lascivious double entendres but her line about liking mechanics because they make things go fast barely qualifies as a single entendre. What the fuck is she talking about? Lugs understandably seems confused rather than turned on and of course we never see her ever again.
Stroker Ace is fundamentally about a raging asshole who signs a terrible contract that he didn’t read, then tries to trick a virgin into having sex with him. The free-floating humiliation is twofold. We’re embarrassed for Stroker Ace but we’re even more embarrassed for Burt Reynolds, who, like the character he plays, signed a shitty contract for a big payday (five million dollars back when that meant something) then had to put up with the unending, lifelong humiliation that comes with it.
Stroker Ace has the final distinction of being stolen not by any of the larger-than-life, cartoonish types Needham has surrounded Reynolds with, like Jim Nabors, Bubba Smith, Ned Beatty or Cassandra Peterson but rather by an actor who doesn’t even appear in the actual film itself, making his presence felt only in end-credit outtakes that are predictably the best part of the film.
The great Jerry Reed steals Stroker Ace by popping up in the outtakes while his good buddy and frequent costar Burt Reynolds is wearing his chicken suit of shame and, acting as an audience surrogate, Reed tells a clearly overjoyed and embarrassed Reynolds that the script for the movie he’s currently shooting is terrible and the sets are weak but the coup de grace is his iconically embarrassing wardrobe, specifically the chicken suit that would go on to symbolize the astonishing miscalculation at the film’s core.
Reed cuts through the voluminous bullshit that is Stroker Ace and says what we’re all thinking: that even if Stroker Ace director Hal Needham saved Burt’s life in Vietnam SEVERAL times and his other option wasn’t a juicy role written specifically for him that would probably win him at least an Academy Award nomination he still should not waste his time and superstardom with this garbage.
At the risk of being controversial, I think Reynolds probably should have chosen Terms of Endearment over Stroker Ace. This critical and commercial flop, nominated for five Golden Raspberries and a winner for Worst Supporting Actor (Nabors) marked a turning point in Reynolds’ career where he stopped being known for making lots of terrible movies that made a fuck ton of money and became infamous for making terrible movies that bombed.
Stroker Ace was one of a series of nadirs in Reynolds’ career but it could have been something much better and different. The Chicago Tribune crowed that the satirical novel the film is loosely based on "would do for stock car racing what... Semi-Tough did for football.”
Semi-Tough was of course one of Reynolds’ best and most nakedly satirical vehicles while at one point Robert Aldrich, Reynolds’ The Longest Yard director was attached, as was legendary comedian and wit Mort Sahl as a first time screenwriter.
Stroker Ace could have been a wild satire about a horrible man who receives a long-overdue comeuppance and is humbled by fate or a crowd-pleasing comedy about an arrogant monster of a man who learns how to be a decent human being thanks to a gauntlet of public humiliation. Instead we got the worst possible version of this story, a dopey, brain-dead comedy that asks us to root for a singularly unlikable hero despite giving us zero reason to do so.
Yes, Reynolds MAY have been better off working with James L. Brooks rather than Hal Needham again and though I have not actually seen Terms of Endearment (why would I? It’s supposed to be very good)I imagine that it probably does not put the character Reynolds would have played in an elaborate chicken suit even once, let alone several times.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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