Sincere and well-intentioned but not particularly good, Heroes takes a seriocomic look at the traumas plaguing Vietnam-era combat vets trying to assimilate back into normal life. The picture is most noteworthy as a star vehicle for Henry Winkler, who was well into his phenomenally popular run as ’50s greaser Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on the sitcom Happy Days (1974-1984). Leaving the leather jacket and pomade behind, Winkler plays a delusional vet named Jack Dunne, who flees a New York City mental hospital to pursue his bizarre dream of opening a worm farm with several combat buddies. He lands on a cross-country bus, seated next to conflicted city girl Carol Bell (Sally Field), who has also fled Manhattan; she’s ditching her impending nuptials for reasons that are never particularly clear. What ensues is an odd sort of romantic comedy, with these mismatched souls getting closer to each other as they experience colorful adventures.
One of these exploits is a long visit with Jack’s Army pal Ken Boyd (Harrison Ford), a simple-minded Midwesterner with a self-destructive streak; he spends his time entering (and losing) stock-car races when he’s not getting hammered and shooting off his M16 in the fields of his family farm. Jack and Carol also run afoul of an ornery bus driver (Val Avery) and the slimy denizens of a redneck bar. Excepting the visit with Ken, the movie’s episodes feel contrived and random, a problem exacerbated by screenwriter James Carabatsos’ vague characterizations and, especially, by the casting of Field and Winkler. Carabatsos can’t figure out how to balance between the film’s comedic and dramatic elements, so the movie’s tonal shifts induce audience whiplash.
As for Field and Winkler, they’re so inherently likeable that it’s hard to buy them as edgy characters, and the script constantly undercuts their work by going for cutesy jokes at the expense of emotional reality. Nonetheless, Heroes isn’t bad so much as sloppy. Many stretches of the film are charming, and Field and Winkler conjure flashes of sweet intimacy whenever the storytelling calms down enough to let them do serious work. It’s also interesting to see Ford playing a character role instead of a lead, since Heroes was made before his ascension to superstardom in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He clearly relishes the hard work of inhabiting a troubled individual, and he has many strong moments.