Review: The Hero (Sundance) starring Sam Elliot

PLOT: Following a bleak medical diagnosis, an aging Western star (Sam Elliott) comes to terms with his mortality and tries to mend his fractured relationships – all the while hoping for one last shot at glory.

REVIEW: Sam Elliott has always struck me as an actor born fifty years too late. Had he been around during the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s not hard to imagine him being a western star on the level of John Wayne or Gary Cooper. With his signature drawl and famous mustache, he’s always oozed presence, but he just happened to have come along as the western genre was dying. Thus, his only real Western leads came in tele-films, robbing him of his real chance at enduring stardom.

As such, it’s not hard to imagine Elliott identifying a lot with his character in THE HERO. His Lee Hayden is a former seventies and eighties star, famous mostly for a series of low-rent movies and TV series, minus one classic oater, upon which most of his reputation rests. Now earning a comfortable living doing voiceovers for BBQ sauce commercials, he spends most of his time smoking weed with his best buddy/drug-dealer (Nick Offerman) who was once a kid sidekick of his on a short-lived TV series.

When he learns he has pancreatic cancer, he weighs the pros and cons of getting treatment, just as his star once again begins to rise, following a viral video where a stoned Lee (having taken some MDMA) gives a funny speech to a Western Heritage Society. Suddenly he’s hot again and he’s also got a thirty-something girlfriend (Laura Prepon), but some things, such as his health and his relationship with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter), can’t be fixed.

It’s really a treat seeing Elliott front-and-center. His director, Brett Haley, previously used him to good effect in I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, and he exploits both his star’s iconic image and an untapped knack for comedy. Who’d have ever thought you’d get to watch Elliott and Offerman play stoner buddies? While in his seventies, Elliott’s still got his famous reedy physique and a quick-wittedness that suits the character well. It’s also nice to finally see a senior shown who’s not a total Luddite, with Elliott enjoying his iPhone throughout and not being totally ignorant of the internet.

While he’s surrounded by a top-quality cast, including Prepon, who’s very effective as his stand-up-comic love interest, Offerman, Ritter and even Elliott’s real-life wife Katherine Ross (herself a western legend after BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID), Elliott’s the whole show. It’s about time he got his due, although while I’m sure Elliott is able to identify with Lee, his own career has been nothing to sneeze at. Sure, he never became an A-list leading man, but he’s still a beloved character actor – although who knows, maybe now is Elliott's time? It would be apropos for the film even if the ultimate message seems to be, yeah, it may be too late for certain things, but who cares?

A charming, low-key, often funny film, THE HERO should appeal to the same audiences that  helped make movies like GRANDMA (also with Elliott) and HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS art-house hits. It’s sweet and sensitive, but it also has a modern edge to it, and is a must see for all those who appreciate its leading man.

Review: The Hero (Sundance) starring Sam Elliot



About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.