Southern Movie 55: “Six Pack” (1982)
I loved Kenny Rogers when I was a kid. He had the cool feathered hair and the swept-back beard. He was The Gambler. He sang in his signature style about things I was too young to understand. And in 1982, when I was eight, he was the dirt-track racer Brewster Baker in Six Pack. Directed by Daniel Petrie, who also directed 1974’s Buster & Billie, this film is a good-hearted tale about doing the right things the right way and taking care of the people who take care of you.
Six Pack opens with an aerial view on a rural two-lane road. Kenny’s hit “Love Will Turn You Around” plays, and at first, we’re not sure exactly what we’re looking for. Then the camera hones in on a small camper towing a trailer with a stock car and extra tires. We understand right away that this is a one-man racing operation, a guy doing his best with what he has. Soon, we begin to see a few houses and the camper van rolls into a small community where our main character will stop for gas. But before he does, we see a ratty blue delivery truck pull out from a side street and begin to follow him.
At the small gas station in Brassell, Texas, Brewster Baker gets out and stretches. He is gray-haired and bearded, dressed completely in denim, and has his shirt unbuttoned down his chest— a real ordinary guy, an ’80s Everyman. (We’ll see later that that’s only partially true.) He walks up to the station where the elderly attendant is sleeping soundly. Brewster wants to use “the john” and gets the key for himself to go around back.
As he does, that faded delivery truck pulls into the gas station too, lining itself up between the station and Brewster’s car, blocking the view. Meanwhile, Brewster has no idea that this is happening while he struggles first with the paper towel dispenser then with door knob. He is locked in . . . and has to go out the small window that ventilates the rough, added-on bathroom. Of course, he tries to hang on to the roofing but it breaks and he falls into a pile of old tires.
That’s when Brewster Baker discovers the hard truth: his car has been stripped. From the short distance away, he sees that the tires on the car and on the rack are gone, and when he jogs closer, he sees that what was under the hood is gone, too. The racer is unusually calm when he walks over to the sheriff’s office, which has a handwritten sign on the door that reads, “Out. Back in???”
All Brewster can do then is go across the street to the café and order a bowl of chili. A cutesy waitress with a radio for a belt buckle tries to flirt with him, but Brewster is too down in the dumps. Meanwhile, a young couple in a yellow Corvette pull up and come into the diner for a couple of burgers to go. The waitress makes a few sexual overtures, but he’s more interested in his car parts. Then, suddenly, she cuts him off with a terse, “I’ve got to get back to work,” and we see out the window that the blue delivery truck has done it again! The yellow Corvette, parked right by Brewster’s rig, has been stripped, too.
For the next few minutes, we watch a bluegrass-fueled rural car chase that starts on the two-lane and moves to the dirt roads. As the two large, bumbling vehicles make sharp turns and trade paint, there are some near crashes. Brewster loses his trailer on one sharp turn, and they make the requisite trip through a barnyard. That continues until the blue truck sails off of an abandoned bridge and into the river below.
Brewster arrives a moment later and sees a small crowd of children swimming away from the floating truck. “Those are kids,” he mutters to himself before he runs down the steep embankment to help them. However, one small child is left on top to the truck, scared and calling for help. The teenage girl among the kids (Diane Lane) shouts that Little Harry is still out there, and Brewster jumps in fully clothed to go after him. He puts the boy on his back and swims him to the shore.
On the river bank, the sopping wet band of juvenile delinquents helps Brewster and the little boy out of the water, and the child asks the exhausted Brewster if he’s going to die. Another boy with a surly expression then says, “Mister, you look like shee-yut,” but shakes his hand anyway for saving his brother. Then, Brewster realizes that the truck is sinking with his parts in it! But one of the boys tells him that his parts have already been delivered . . . Delivered to who? The kids aren’t saying anymore. So, Brewster gathers them up and proclaims that he’s taking them to their parents to get some answers. On their way up the hill, he also laments his broken trailer, but another boy stops him and snaps back, “If we can’t fix it, it ain’t broke, mister.”
Back up on the road, the half-dozen kids hammer the trailer’s connection back into shape and get Brewster hooked back up. The oldest of them is the teenager Heather/Breezy, and her five younger brothers are Doc the mechanic (Anthony Michael Hall, who’ll later star in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club), Louis the big boy, Steven the squirrelly “accountant,” Little Harry, and Swifty with the foul mouth. The tone has gotten friendlier, but Brewster still isn’t happy about being robbed, so he loads the kids in the camper to take them home.
What Brewster wants to find at their house isn’t exactly what he gets. At their dilapidated, tin-roof shack there are no parents, and he threatens to press charges for the theft and put them all in the reformatory. Little Harry pipes up, “I don’t want to go to the deform-a-story!” and flies into Breezy’s arms. Swifty and Louis echo the sentiment, but just then a car pulls up and they panic. It’s Big John. Breezy tells Brewster to stay put.
Outside in the yard, Big John the sheriff (Barry Corbin) immediately berates the kids for stealing a car, instead of just stripping it. He see Brewster’s rig outside, but doesn’t know Brewster is there and can hear him. Cautiously, though, he steps out of the house and confronts the grinning sheriff. The dummy deputy Otis then steps behind Brewster and says, “Let me waste him, Sheriff,” but is told to shut up. However, Brewster won’t get off so easy. He is cuffed and taken to jail for running out on his tab back at the café, but not before being knocked in the head with the gun butt for “resisting arrest.”
Brewster wakes up in the two-bit jail when the deputy Otis lets out a triumphant hoot during his game of solitaire. Soon, Swifty appears in the window and sneaks inside while Otis is preoccupied. He pulls Otis’s own gun on him and demands to have Brewster released. The spineless and not-too-bright Otis is hesitant but complies. Brewster punches him in the stomach before locking him in his own cell. But before they can get out of the building, Big John strolls up! They wait for him to pass by then sneak out, finding that Breezy is waiting in Brewster’s camper to aid in the escape. It appears for a moment that Big John and Otis might catch them, but in the brief chase that ensues, the lawman’s car comes to pieces. The pint-sized mechanics have rigged it to have the hood and other parts fly off.
In the light of day, the motley crew is making their way down a two-lane highway when Little Harry has to go to the bathroom. Brewster uses the opportunity to check his car, and one kid asks if he’s a racecar driver. “I used to be,” Brewster replies. The family then begins to speculate as to why he quit: a wreck, alcoholism, a woman . . . but Brewster doesn’t abide them. But he does ask how they became car thieves. Everyone gets quiet, but Breezy breaks the silence. Their parents were killed in a wreck, so they started stripping cars to support themselves. Big John caught them though, and he threatened to break up their family if they didn’t start working for him.
In the camper van again, Breezy asks where Brewster is going. Shreveport. Brewster wants to drop them off at the next town, but they plead to go on further with him. Those local lawmen will just call Big John. Alright, Brewster agrees, but Shreveport is it. Then they’ll go their separate ways.
In the motel parking lot in Shreveport, there are racecars all over the place. Brewster comes out of his camper dressed for the bar, and the six kids stare at him with sad expressions. He implores them to do what they agreed to in the car: spend the night in the motel, then take a bus for anywhere in the morning. He has been waiting two years to get back into racing, and he doesn’t need any distractions. As Brewster walks away, Little Harry asks, “What’re we gonna do now?” At this point, not quite a half-hour into the movie, we’re so disappointed in Brewster— how could he do this, just walk away?
Inside the honkytonk, Brewster enters to Merle Haggard’s “Rainbow Stew” and scans the room. He finds what he’s looking for pretty quickly: a slim brunette working at the bar. He makes several attempts to get noticed, which all fail, so finally, he walks over. Unfortunately, Brewster gets an elbow when he tries to kiss her neck from behind, then gives up on subtlety and lays one on her. This is Lilah (Erin Gray, who GenXers will recognize as the love interest Kate in the TV show Silver Spoons), who owns the place. They try to talk for a minute about how Brewster disappeared several years ago. However, Brewster is obviously well-known and well-liked. People keeping speaking to him and calling him over, so he’s not just an Everyman. With friendly resolve, he has to take Lilah in the corner, make out with her for a moment, and then go be with his pals.
Outside, the six miscreants are starting a dumpster fire to divert attention from the fact that they’re stripping cars. We’ll find out shortly that they’re doing it to give Brewster back the parts he lost, but Brewster doesn’t like it at all. First, it’s wrong to steal from the other drivers. Second, if they find out their stolen parts are on his car, he’ll be the one to suffer.
But before that, Brewster and Lilah excuse themselves from the barroom crowd to go back to her small apartment. There, Brewster excuses himself of responsibility for the kids, and Lilah tries to be a supportive woman. He says, “Do I look a father to you?” Lilah replies, “Yes, because you look like everything to me.” Sweet. And then they get lovey dovey.
In the morning, there is a knock at the door. Many of the drivers’ cars have been stripped, and Brewster knows – but doesn’t say – who did it. He goes back to his camper, where the six kids are waiting on him, to scold them for what they’ve done. They were just trying to pay him back for his missing parts, but Brewster isn’t hearing it. He orders the kids out of his camper, but Heather/Breezy asks him to them to the interstate at least.
On the road, they make a stop at a junkyard so Brewster can get some parts to replace what was stolen from his friends. He calls on the black junkman, who is obviously an old friend, and they have brief conversation about how long since they’re seen each other. The junkman alludes to a wreck, and now we know what happened to Brewster. But out by the roadside, the camper van is gone! Brewster has taken the ignition wire off, so they couldn’t drive away, but they managed to do it anyway. So, Brewster has to hitch rides to the track, including a semi-comical ride in the back of truck with an affectionate bloodhound.
When Brewster does arrive at the track, the Six Pack is waiting on him. A few drivers jeer at his pint-sized pit crew, but the car is ready to go. He’s mad but there’s no time to waste, since it’s his turn to qualify. And wouldn’t you know— he qualifies on the first try! The youngsters have done an excellent job getting the car ready to race.
After the race, Brewster is ready once again to ditch the half-dozen hangers-on. He gives them some money and tells them it would have been more if he hadn’t had to pay people back for the stolen parts. Lilah wanders up about that time, and Brewster introduces her to the crew. They all give him some crap about trying to ditch the kids, so he buys them some ice cream and says farewell. Swifty cusses him out as he loads up, then rips into a torrent of swears as Brewster drives off.
At the next dirt track, we meet our other villain Terk Logan, who pulls up in a shiny rig then gets out to sign autographs. He’s dressed in black, with a Richard Petty style cowboy hat. Meanwhile, Brewster is making is qualifying run, but the car doesn’t sound good. He rolls off the track and gets under the car himself. After another driver jibes him about his sputtering machine, Brewster is mumbling that he can’t fix it just as Doc dangles his stethoscope down onto Brewster’s face. The kids are back . . . Breezy tells him, with a knitted brow, “We got no choice but to stick with you ’til a better thing turns up.” Brewster agrees but reluctantly, saying this main condition is that they don’t mess any other drivers’ cars. They’ve got a deal.
About that time, Terk wanders up, chuckling and insinuating. It is clear that Brewster and Terk don’t like each other, and Terk remarks that Brewster was his “old boss.” He insults Brewster in a backhanded way a few times, and Swifty dog-cusses him while Brewster gives him the cool stare. Nothing will happen, though. Terk wanders off again, leaving behind one last threat to Brewster to watch his back, but Brewster tosses him a half-eaten apple and tells him, “Shove it.”
The kids want to know who that guy is, and Brewster tells the story. Terk was his mechanic but wanted to drive, so he sabotaged Brewster and talked smack about him to the sponsors. His monkeying around with the car caused Brewster to crash at Talladega and lose his sponsors— who picked up Terk right away. Brewster’s ultimatum is to stay away from Terk.
But Brewster has another problem, too: as he’s walking away after telling his story, Doc tells him that he has a cracked head. “That’s $2,000,” Brewster replies, saying they’ll have to make it through tomorrow’s race with what they’ve got.
So, now we’ve got a major automotive problem and two villains: Big John the sheriff and Terk the racecar driver. Brewster is a down-and-out, nearly broke, one-man show, but he’s got a good woman who believes in him and six little orphans who can fix his car up right. He’s the underdog of underdogs, and we love it!
In the motel that night, Brewster tells the kids a scary story then Breezy sends them off the bed. On the way out of his room, Breezy asks if he’s talked to Lilah lately. We get a little sense that this teenage girl is thinking of being romantic with this older man, but Brewster keeps his cool and she leaves. Brewster then heads out to the honkytonk where yet another waitress comes onto him. Once again, he’s the good guy and turns her down.
While he’s out and about, Breezy and the boys enact a plan to get new heads for Brewster’s car . . . by doing exactly what Brewster said not to. Terk is working late and all alone under his car when Breezy shows up in tight jeans and a tight red shirt. She lures him out from under the car, and he takes her back to his camper, which gives the boys time to get the parts they need for Brewster. We think for a moment that Breezy might have to get nasty with Terk, but she makes a break for it at the last second, leaving him grabbing at air and rolling around on the floor. Terk is a sleaze, so we don’t feel bad for him.
When the tired young’uns ambled back up the motel stairs, Brewster is waiting on them. They were supposed to be in bed. They try to lie about where they’ve been, and Brewster yells at Breezy, so she leaves, walking off into the night. Good guy that he is, Brewster spends the whole night riding the streets of Biloxi, Mississippi looking for her. He finds her at dawn. She refuses to go with him at first, but then breaks down and falls into his arms. In the van on the way back to the motel, she tearfully confides that she just wants to be normal. Breezy wishes she could go to high school and be cheerleader.
Out on the track, Brewster is running a good race and moves from a ninth-place start to challenge Terk for third. Near the end, they trade paint, then Terk’s car blows a head gasket. Over in the pit area, Terk knows what has happened, and when the race is over, he charges Brewster and starts a fight! The kids all jump in to help Brewster, but security breaks it up.
On the highway later, Brewster clarifies what was done. Breezy (aka Bobby Lee with the tight red shirt) seduced Terk while the boys switched his good heads for Brewster’s cracked ones. Brewster pulls the van over and tells them they can’t do that! The kids look baffled – we hate Terk, right? – but Brewster only wants to win fair and square. He also scolds Breezy for doing dangerous things, and he finally tells Swifty to watch his mouth. Brewster then decides on Nashville as their next destination, and the kids break into a stirring a capella version of “Rocky Top.”
After brief scene at a campground that has the kids looking at ads for houses for sale, the classic ’80s montage begins. The music plays as Brewster is winning races all over the South. In the background, we see a mysterious stranger who is watching all the while. Thing are looking up for our underdogs.
Or maybe not. As the last race in the montage ends with a Brewster Baker win, he gets out of the car to accept his trophy but the kids aren’t there. A man from the track tells him that a sheriff came and took them as runaways. Brewster is panicked, but as he is jogging toward his camper, he is stopped by the mysterious stranger. His name is Pinson, and he has a Ford car looking for a driver to race in the Grand National at Atlanta. This is Brewster’s big break, but he takes the man’s card and drives away. The kids come first.
In a comical interlude, Brewster goes into the Birmingham sheriff’s office and pretends to be Big John, wearing a modified Boy Scout uniform. But it works and he and the kids leave right as Big John arrives for his “chargees.” The driver and the Six Pack have a good laugh in the van, but they’re in even bigger trouble now. No matter, they’re heading for Atlanta.
At the speedway, Brewster is humbled and thankful for the new car, which has somehow been made ready almost immediately. With about twenty minutes left in the movie, it’s time for the big finish— but not without another montage! This time, Brewster is in a gray sweat suit, working out like he’s Rocky . . .well, not quite like Rocky, but he is doing sit-ups and jogging up the raceway’s stairs.
Once “training” is over, it’s time to race. Brewster qualifies to run seventh, but Terk is right behind him, starting eighth. The bad news is: the Six Pack can’t be in the pits. There’s an age limit, and they don’t make the cut. But they’ll still be able to take jobs to help out.
That evening, at the motel, the kids are counting their money to try to buy one of the houses they were looking at at the campground. They’ve got a $7,100, a lot for them but not much for house-buying, and besides, the person on the phone says they have to be adults to buy. Even worse, somebody already bought it!
Meanwhile, Brewster is at the honkytonk, where yet another waitress throws herself at him. But this time, Lilah walks in right as it’s happening. He’s busted but tries to explain, I was just trying to call you . . . She doesn’t buy it but does anyway, and they’re on good terms again.
In the morning after Brewster gets out of bed with Lilah, the real problems begin. Terk and his goons attack Brewster in a parking lot. He puts up a pretty good fight, but they get the best of him, knock him out, and dump him in the woods. At the racetrack, the crew and the sponsors are wondering whether Brewster got cold feet and ran off. But he’s not that kind of guy. Sore head and all, he hitches a ride with a couple of stoners in a convertible Volkswagen beetle. He doesn’t arrive ’til the very last minute and has to climb in the car where it has been lined up to get started.
Now, all of the conflicts come down on Brewster Baker at once. The big race, the Atlanta 500, is starting. Terk is in the race. And then, during the action, just as Brewster and Terk have moved into the first and second spots . . . Big John shows up to take the kids, personally. As Brewster comes into the pit and sees the kids’ faces in the back window of the sheriff’s car, Brewster has no choice but to go after Big John and get them. In a daft move, he runs Terk into the pit wall, ensuring that he can’t win the race, then leaves the pit and blocks Big John’s way out. In front of news cameras, Brewster exposes Big John’s corruption, leaving him no choice but to give the kids with Brewster.
Six Pack ends with Brewster and Lilah getting married, with the kids surrounding them. Then, we get to see what really happened with the house. Someone did buy it. It was Brewster! Now, they’re one, big happy family living in their dream home.
Six Pack is a feel-good movie, plain and simple. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a mediocre 71%, and Turner Classic Movies doesn’t give it any more than bare-bones, almost-empty webpage. Back in 1982, The New York Times called the film “good-natured but none-too-interesting” then added this cynical assessment: it’s “the kind of film in which orphans find a father, a lonely man finds a good woman, an unsuccessful racer makes good on the comeback trail, and everybody lives unreasonably happily ever after.” Yup, that describes it.
More recently, the website Saving Country Music had this to say about the movie in a March 2020 review:
You won’t find the 1982 film Six Pack archived in the Smithsonian or in the short list of Oscar-awarded efforts. But for thousands, maybe millions of Americans who grew up in the 80’s, Six Pack looms quite large in their little cultural ethos. [ . . . ] In many ways Six Pack was a kids movie, even though a lot of the themes and dialogue were definitely oriented towards adults. It was one of those “wink wink” movies before the PG-13 rating was implemented where producers purposely included pieces of forbidden fruit to make younger and older audiences interested at the same time.
I’d say that writer nailed it, too. My fondness for Six Pack doesn’t come from any notions of cinematic excellence. It comes from my recollections of growing up white and blue-collar in the Deep South in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Movies like this and Smokey and the Bandit and the show Dukes of Hazzard gave my friends and I a sense that being a Southerner at that time was cool. Of course, we didn’t know anybody who actually raced or who actually ran from the cops, but our dads and uncles were the guys you see in the background, in the stands watching the race and in the bars drinking.
Watching the movie almost forty years later, though, one thing does bother me: there are almost no black people. Here, we’ve got this movie, set in the Deep South, where a guy starts in east Texas, then goes to Shreveport, Biloxi, Birmingham, Atlanta . . . and the only black people we see are the junkyard man near the beginning and one of the two stoners near the end. There were millions of African Americans living in those places at that time, but there aren’t even black people in the background, among the extras! That says something about the making of the movie . . . It would take work – real work – to ensure that only white people made it onto the screen. That’s not even getting to having the only black characters be a good-natured junk man and a stoned hippie.