'70s films, '70s-era, action films, Alan Weeks, bail bondsmen, blaxploitation films, cinema, Dick MIller, film reviews, films, guns, Isaac Hayes, Jonathan Kaplan, Movies, Nichelle Nichols, Paul Harris, pimps, Scatman Crothers, Shaft, skip tracers, Superfly, Three Tough Guys, Truck Turner, Yaphet Kotto
Slowly but surely, we work our way through the review backlog. This time, we bring you last last Friday’s viewing: Truck Turner.
For a guy who was so instrumental in one of the greatest Blaxploitation films of all time, Isaac Hayes didn’t really have much involvement with the subgenre past that point. He wrote the score for the 1971 action flick (picking up a Grammy, in the process) but would really only return to the fold twice more (three times if you count I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988)): he made his acting debut in 1974’s Three Tough Guys and followed that up with Truck Turner the same year, for which he starred and wrote the score.
With his solid build, smooth-as-silk voice and pliable features, Isaac Hayes always seemed like a ready-built movie star: too bad that whole music career thing got in the way, huh? Despite being one of the biggest recording artists of the ’60s and ’70s, Hayes also managed to act in several dozen films and TV shows, including an eight-year on South Park as the iconic Chef: not too shabby for someone who’s also won three Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
There’s something about Hayes that always seemed to communicate an unseen wink and nod, even if he was beating the living crap out of someone: he’s such a personable force, such a likable onscreen presence, that you’re liable to forgive him any trespasses. In the dictionary next to “Badass”…well, you get the idea.
In Truck Turner, Hayes portrays the titular hero, a truly badass bail bondsman who’s as fast with a gun as he is with his fists. Just take a look at that glorious poster featuring a shirtless Hayes wielding a gun so large it would make Dirty Harry weep. That’s right, suckers: that’s truth in advertising right there. Truck and his partner Jerry (Alan Weeks) are on the trail of a badass pimp named Gator (Paul Harris). When they waste the scuzz-bucket, Gator’s old lady Dorinda (Nichelle “Uhura” Nichols!!) puts a call out to all the local pimps: if they can take out Truck, she’ll give them half of Gator’s stable of working girls. Only one pimp is bad enough to even try: Harvard Blue, played by non other than Yaphet Kotto. They all hit the streets for a violent whirlwind of sassy backtalk, hard hits, slo-mo kicks, giant guns and lots and lots of sweet outfits (most of the cast are supposed to be pimps, after all). In short: this is blaxploitation heaven, friends and neighbors.
Truck Turner may be a lot of things but “boring” and “square” aren’t two of them. Truth be told, this was a wickedly funny, super-fast and impressively paced film, something that can (almost) sit proudly next to Shaft. The cast and the dialogue are what really push this one to the forefront. Hayes is absolutely perfect as Truck, a seamless combination of bemused-nice-guy and badass-tough-guy who has a particular way with a quip: “If anyone asks you what happened, tell ’em you were hit by a truck: Mac Truck Turner” is one of his better ones but really: Hayes doesn’t get much bad dialogue in this. Alan Weeks is a perfect foil as Jerry: his indignant delivery of “They called my old lady a jive-ass broad!” is easily one of the films highlights but everything about his friendship with Turner is spot-on. The two have a habit of sighing off with a “Get it…got it…good” interplay that always provokes a smile: you really buy these guys as best friends, which adds a lot of pathos to the film.
Kotto is completely over-the-top and absolutely outstanding as Blue: he manages to chew even more scenery than he did in the previous year’s Bond film, Live and Let Die (1973), no easy feat considering he was blown up by a shark pellet in that one. Any scene with Kotto in it is gold and he gets a pretty decent amount of screen-time. His death scene, in particular, seems to last about 45 minutes and is a master-class in mugging for the camera. Scatman Crothers makes an appearance as a retired pimp, complete with pink pants and creme de menthe in hand and Corman regular Dick Miller shows up as head of the bail bond office.
Best of all, however, is Nichols as the vicious, venomous Dorinda. From what I can tell, Truck Turner was Nichols’ only blaxploitation film role (and one of only a handful of non-Star Trek film appearances, to be honest), which is a real shame: Nichols is an absolute hoot and I would have killed to see her do a vintage film with Pam Grier. In fact, Nichols is so good that she almost steals the film from Hayes and Kotto, which is no mean feat. When she snarls, “They better learn to sell pussy in Iceland cuz if I ever see them again, I’m gonna slit their fucking throats!” to Gator’s prostitutes, she manages to be both hilarious and terrifying: Nichols seems completely invested in her performance and sells it 150%.
Excellent cast aside, there’s plenty of other great stuff going on here. The score, while not as iconic as Shaft, is certainly no slouch. In particular, Hayes’ “Truck Turner Theme” is a minor masterpiece, featuring such classic lines as, “There’s some dudes in a bar/With busted heads and broken jaws/What hit ’em?/Truck Turner!” The rest of the score is equally hot, featuring plenty of funky rock, rockin’ congas and rude brass. The humor is exceptionally vulgar (one woman tries to pay the bail-bondsmen with food stamps) but genuinely funny, more often than not. There are certain shots, such as the slo-mo bit where a pink Cadillac collides with a massive cart full of bagels or the (also slo-mo) moment where Truck kicks some dude backwards through a phone-booth that function both as great action bits and decent belly laughs. The film even manages to reference other films of the era (“Grow wings, Superfly” quips Truck, as he holds some poor schlub out of a window)
The prolonged chase sequence where Truck and Jerry are hot on Gator’s heels is a thrilling, prolonged highlight involving multiple car chases, a car-jacking, gunfights, a foot chase, an exploding car and a massive bar brawl. The bar brawl, in particular, is a complete classic and should make any devotee of ’70s action movies blush with pride. In fact, the film is pretty much one non-stop fight/chase scene after another, with only momentary breaks taken for such issues like character development or a little romance (the scene where Truck makes love to his woman while an Isaac Hayes slow-jam plays on the soundtrack is so meta that it becomes hilarious).
Essentially, if you have any affinity for blaxploitation movies whatsoever, Truck Turner will be right up your alley. I mean, c’mon: the movie features a white pimp named Desmond who coordinates his eyepatch to his various pastel-and-rhinestone outfits, Nichelle Nichols swearing like a ship full of sailors, Yaphet Kotto using a sick kid as a human shield and Isaac “Mr. Badass” Hayes kicking some dude through a fucking phone-booth!
If you can’t get behind that, turkey, I just can’t help ya.