“Black, Bold and Bloody mean!”
Political correctness is one of the more insidious nagging forces that plagues our society but more importantly (as far as I’m concerned) our art and entertainment. One of the dearly departed casualties under this regime were exploitation films and its subgenre, the Blaxploitation, whose heyday was in the late 1960s through mid-1970s.
Mostly produced by Roger Corman and distributed by the now-defunct American International Pictures (only on occasion, like MGM with Shaft (1971), did the big studios capitalize on the craze), these films with their bare-bones budgets and puny production values made no pretense to be great art. Corman’s and AIP’s sole goal was to make a large profit. At their best, when they fearlessly went for the jugular, exploitation films were far more entertaining than many “respectable” Hollywood films. Sometimes, as in the case of Truck Turner (1974), a film can satisfy all of the glorious excesses of the exploitation and still be a properly good film.
Turner was most likely originally conceived as a more traditional action flick. Initially it was a vehicle for Robert Mitchum and then James Coburn was attached before Isaac Hayes came on board and the story was relocated to the urban inner-city. Truck Turner is the perfect storm of the Blaxploitation salaciousness, spirited performances, stellar direction (by Jonathan Kaplan), and a top-notch script by (Oscar Williams and Michael Allin) that seamlessly combines comedy and action.
Unlike most crime films that talk tough but have generically sanitized sets, Turner is pure filth all the way. Following the credit sequence with a moving camera on an assortment of the ghetto bums and riff-raff, the film introduces a passed-out Truck in his apartment amidst the dozens of empty beer cans, food wrappers, and dirty clothes. A phone call by his more responsible partner Jerry (Alan Weeks) rudely awakens him. After an ordeal to find his only clean shirt, Truck has a cussing altercation with his scraggly cat for pissing on it.
Although Truck is uncouth and slovenly, he is never unappealing due to the script and Isaac Hayes’ charming and dynamic performance. Hayes at the time was primarily a musician of innovative soul and R&B of the 1960s who rose to prominence with his iconic Oscar-winning theme song for Shaft. It is hard to believe that this is only his second performance (and first headlining role) as he exudes such an ease in front of the camera and is bawdily funny and ultra-macho in a non-turnoff way. Inexplicably Turner did not catapult Hayes into a major action/comedy star. After this film, he sporadically appeared in character roles in films and TV shows, most famously as the Chef on the irreverent animated TV series South Park. He acrimoniously left the show in 2006 after almost 10 years because as a devout Scientologist he objected to its spoof in one of the teleplays.
The first act moves at a loose and breezy pace. It is largely comprised of rowdy buddy-buddy verbal repartees between Truck and Jerry and many of the supporting players. Within the first few minutes, the word “nigger” is used several dozen times in all of its connotations. Another point of discussion/ridicule is Truck’s jailbird girlfriend, Annie, a convicted shoplifter, a great touch for which Williams and Allin deserve special praise.
Annazette Chase’s spunky performance is far superior to the run-of-the-mill ingénue. In contrast to most films where the love interest is a boring intrusion, Chase’s presence offers a feisty and sexy female voice who more than holds her own in Turner’s violent, predominantly male-dominated world. Hayes and Chase make the most erotic pigs ever captured on celluloid in an unconventional sex scene involving finger licking fried chicken and Hayes’ baritone voice on a romantic R&B background song.
All of the action sequences are staged and executed with a perfect comedic and adrenaline-inducing zing. The first significant action scene, when Truck and Jerry are chasing Gator (Paul Harris), a pimp on whom they have a bounty, is an intricately plotted ten minutes of pure euphoria. Beginning as a standard car chase, things quickly shift to the absurd when Gator’s cotton candy pink automobile crashes into every object in sight. Just as impressive are the micro cutaway moments such as when Gator’s car crashes into an Orthodox Jew’s cart of bagels which fly out all over the frame.
After an elaborate hide and seek bit in a sewer done with great seriousness, the pace reaccelerates when Truck and Jerry have to fend off a bunch of bar patrons paid off by Gator to restrain them, elevated claustrophobically by Charles F. Wheeler’s rough hand-held camerawork. It ends hilariously as one of the patrons who had his ass whooped by Truck bemoans the little compensation and how he would’ve demanded more had he known it was Truck Turner.
In their next altercation, Truck and Jerry pelt Gator with bullets. One of Gator’s crazed prostitutes then stabs Jerry in the shoulder and Truck smacks her down the ground. The insanity is heightened by Wheeler’s trippy cinematography.
Things take a more violent turn as Truck incurs the wrath of Gator’s lady, Dorinda, played by Nichelle “Uhura” Nichols who in this shining cast gives the ultimate scene-stealing performance. She is diametrically against her ethereal Star Trek character as a volatile, revenge-crazed madam who offers a bunch of flamboyantly dressed pimps a bounty to murder Truck. Williams and Allin furnish her with a series of dynamic angry soliloquies, many of which concern her “Black Bitch” prostitutes. Nichols wrings colorful lines like “Her clients call her Colonel Sanders because she’s finger lickin’ good” for all their wonderfully campy delight.
Truck Turner marked Nichols’ only foray into Blaxploitation. She turned down all other offers and for the rest of the 70s and 80s mostly focused her efforts as a NASA recruiter who brought many blacks and other minorities into the organization.
Even with all this excellence, Turner still saves its best punches for last. The final shootout between Truck and his adversary Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto, who gives a coolly restrained performance) is another marvelous cinematic juggernaut that excels at presenting simultaneous thrills and gallows humor. The shooting gallery commences in the ICU room of Truck’s badly beaten boss (Sam Laws). Though he’s totally bandaged up, he takes out his gun and partakes in the action. The scope widens as they take their fight to the halls and doctors, nurses, and patients get trapped in the crossfire. Grossly humorous cutaways unfold as fluids in machines get shot at and come flying out. Everything is pitch perfect down to child actor Randy Gray’s convincing performance as a patient ruthlessly taken hostage by Blue. Quentin Tarantino, the most prolific aficionado of the Exploitation, has borrowed several elements of Turner in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill: Volume 1. The composition and gross violent humor resemble the shoot out sequences in Django Unchained.
Unsurprisingly, Turner hasn’t received much notice from the high and middlebrow publications. The only contemporaneous review I could find is a snippet piece by New York Times critic Vincent Canby. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Canby, not a fan of Blaxploitation, didn’t give it much serious consideration. Most inexplicable is his dismissal of Hayes’ acting abilities. At least he realized that he should “Credit the writers with providing the cast with an innercity patois that is authentic” even if he qualified it with “if largely four-letter, and funnier and pithier than the obvious plot.”
However, it has caught the attention of people in the industry. In 2004, it was reported that Queen Latifah was going to develop and star in a remake, although as of yet, the project hasn’t come into fruition. According to IMDb, there are plans to remake Turner as a “story refilmed for a new generation.” As an outsider without an IMDb Pro account, I don’t know if this is still Latifah’s vehicle or another project entirely. Regardless, Truck Turner is such a uniquely seminal piece of rough and gritty 70s cinema that it cannot be entrusted to our safe and boring generation responsible for patronizing, no-less-exploitative drivel like The Blind Side or The Help. Instead it should be critically studied by future screenwriters and filmmakers of comedy and action.