Truck Turner: Blaxploitation’s Answer to Dirty Harry

❉ Brian J. Heistan takes a joyride with a bad-ass Isaac Hayes, a foul-mouthed Nichelle Nichols and a ruthless Yaphet Kotto.

“Dorinda sure has a foul mouth. Did I mention that Dorinda is played by Nichelle Nichols? Yes, you heard that right! Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek. I must say I’m absolutely shocked to hear such obscene language come from the USS Enterprise’s cool-headed First Lady!”

The blaxploitation genre was a huge deal in the 1970s that no one could get away from. These were exploitation films aimed at urban African-American audiences that were filled with funk and jazz music. Most cult movie fans are quite familiar with the subgenre and probably have a favorite. Shaft (1971) is arguably the most famous. Or maybe you’re more into the Pam Grier films like Coffy (1973) or Foxy Brown (1974). And for you horror fans, go check out Blacula (1972). There’s even a blaxploitation for James Bond fans which is of course Live and Let Die (1973). But with all these great choices in the subgenre, there’s one film that I feel is an extremely well-made classic and yet it feels as though it doesn’t get the full recognition that it truly deserves. That movie is Truck Turner (1974).

Truck Turner (1974) is the product of American International Pictures, who were cramming out some fine blaxploitation movies at the time, such as the Pam Grier outings. The film was originally conceived as a knock-off of Dirty Harry (1971) which would have starred Robert Mitchum before being changed into an urban blaxploitation picture. AIP cast Isaac Hayes just so they could get him to score the music. At the time, Hayes won the Academy Award for his theme song to Shaft (1971). Modern generations will probably remember Isaac Hayes best as the voice of Chef in South Park (1997-). Jonathan Kaplan, a former student of Roger Corman, was chosen as director following his work on the Gene Corman produced blaxploitation The Slams (1973). Kaplan would later go on to direct The Accused (1988) which won Jodie Foster an Oscar for Best Actress.

Hayes is both hilarious and the ultimate bad-ass as Truck Turner. He has some real funny moments such as when he smacks his cat off his dresser for pissing on his shirt or when he convinces a pedestrian to call the police by pulling out his gun, causing the pedestrian to run, scream, and accidentally break a water jug he had in his hands. The scenes when he’s gunning down pimps and gangbangers are awesome spectacles as well and I love the shots of Truck firing with his hand gun. Truck is a skip tracer, a long with the help of his partner Jerry played by the likeable Alan Weeks. These two have the best humour and chemistry together and you always feel for them.

Originally, Truck was written as an overly serious cold blooded killer in order to keep it in the style of Dirty Harry (1971). Both Kaplan and Hayes disliked how dark the original script was. Kaplan said he hated it so much that he didn’t want to direct it. Both Kaplan and Hayes chose to improvise humour into the film in order to ease down the tone. I feel that Kaplan and Hayes made a wise decision in toning the film down because the humour is quite enjoyable. The movie isn’t a complete comedy though and for the most part, Kaplan does know when the film should be serious even if it can sometimes come off as uneven in certain parts.

Truck is on the hunt for a pimp named Gator who’s wanted for lighting a little girl’s hand on fire, as well as beating her father in with a pipe and carving his initials in his face. Eventually, Truck finds Gator sporting a hilariously typical pink pimpmobile which evolves into an intense chase scene that’s nearly as long as the car chase from Bullitt (1968). There’s some funny moments such as when Gator runs into a shopping cart full of bagels belonging to a Jewish man or when he crashes into a food stand, causing the clerk to say “What the fuck?” Isaac Hayes’ music is on full powerful display here. (Definitely go on YouTube to listen to the track “Pursuit of the Pimpmobile”. I can’t stop listening to this one track. It’s that good. In fact, I’m listening to it right now as I write this).

Gator gets his karma as his pimpmobile keeps smashing and crashing into shit, which causes his doors to break off and his trunk to be all smashed up. It’s funny. It turns into a foot chase as Truck and Jerry chase Gator through a treatment plant in a scene that feels straight out of the oil wells from Touch of Evil (1958). Having escaped the plant, it turns back into a car chase when Gator steals Jerry’s car, causing the two of them to force a truck driver into following Gator. After Truck shoots the car, Gator runs into a bar, paying everyone inside to kick the shit out of Truck and Jerry. It’s one awesome all-out spectacle. People get thrown and punched, producers Paul Heller and Fred Weintraub get to recycle several fight moves from Enter the Dragon (1973) and even Earl Jolly Brown (Whisper from Live and Let Die) makes a cameo.

It’s crazy to think that all this happens in almost nine minutes, but Kaplan does an excellent job. I heard that Kaplan had to spend hours mapping a good portion of downtown L.A. for this one sequence which just goes to show how well he directed it all. It never catches a break for one second, keeping the audience in complete excitement all the way through. It’s easily the greatest sequence in the entire film. Some movies spend an hour talking and talking… and then, there’s Truck Turner!

After another exciting scene involving a shoot-out between Truck, Jerry, and Gator that leaves the cold blooded pimp shot to death by Truck, Gator’s associate, brothel madam Dorinda, is now after the notorious bounty hunter. In her own words, Dorinda wants “a bucket of blood” (horror movie title reference).

Now in full control of Gator’s stable, Dorinda is willing to sell any of Gator’s girls to whoever kills Truck Turner. The scene when she’s introducing the women is enjoyably typical of your average ‘70s exploitation picture. They’re all in skimpy clothing, circling around each and every one of the pimps who have been tasked with killing Truck. Disco music is playing in the background while Dorinda brags about how much money each call girl makes. One notable girl Dorinda introduces is Turnpike. “She’s called Turnpike because you gotta pay to get on and pay to get off.” God, this is just great, isn’t it?

Dorinda sure has a foul mouth. Did I mention that Dorinda is played by Nichelle Nichols? Yes, you heard that right! Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek. I must say I’m absolutely shocked to hear such obscene language come from the USS Enterprise’s cool-headed First Lady! It is so unbelievable to see Nichelle Nichols play such a nasty and despicable villainess. You know what they say, never underestimate the talents of an actor. According to Kaplan, Nichols would ask him after takes “Honey, is that too much?” to which Kaplan replied, “There is no such thing as too much for this character.”

The film features another excellent villain in the character of Blue played by the always entertaining Yaphet Kotto (Live and Let Die, Alien). Blue originally had a score to settle with Gator after he stole his girl Stalingrad Crude. After Gator is killed however, Blue is now in on Dorinda’s bounty for Truck Turner. I said before that while this film does have its fair share of humour, it still knows when to take itself serious in parts. In the case of Blue, Kotto is very serious.

Blue’s first scene is great. He shows up to Gator’s funeral which is supposed to be a sad moment for our criminal characters. All of Gator’s pimp friends show up to bless him with dashes of holy water and Dorinda even has to be held back. Then, comes Blue walking out of his white limousine. Isaac Hayes’ melancholy concerto suddenly becomes slow and creepy as soon as Blue walks into frame. And while everyone else is blessing Gator with holy water, Blue spits right onto his corpse as if to say “Fuck you. I should have been your killer.”

Blue seems smarter than all the other pimps. Everyone else seems to underestimate Truck Turner while Blue is smart enough to know his enemies and understand Truck Turner’s death is not an easy job. Kotto is extremely ruthless and loud-mouthed in the role of Blue. It’s very much on par with his Dr. Kananga/Mr. Big from the previous year. There’s also an entertaining cameo from the legendary Dick Miller (who sports his usual pink jacket that he wore throughout the ‘70s) in the role of a sleazy lawyer named Fogarty.

When the hit on Truck becomes more difficult than predicted, Blue calls on the assistance of The Insurance Company, a group of ruthless hitmen who mistake Jerry for Truck and blast him to bits. It’s truly a shocking scene and change in tone from the film’s comedic energy. Jerry was such a likeable supporting character all the way through which is what makes his death all the more sad to watch. This fuels Truck’s rage and lust to avenge Jerry and after a brilliant shot of Truck walking into the camera with a cold and emotionless stare, we realise that this is when the film is going to take a dark and serious turn.

The final act is when the film truly exceeds itself. Truck has an epic shootout with the Insurance Company, and we get what has to be one of the best slow-motion scenes in a film when Truck shoots one of the hitmen Joe Dante (Yes, he is named after monster kid director Joe Dante), causing him to take a slow-motion dive into Blue’s pool as Truck watches on a balcony with Isaac Hayes’ score once again in full force. We then get a bad ass shoot out in a hospital. Once again, Isaac Hayes is rocking the score and Blue shows how ruthless he really is when he threatens the safety of a kid if Truck doesn’t stay away from him.

Eventually, Blue is shot in the leg when he least expects it, and the kid is free. Crawling out of the hospital, Truck then gets Blue in the back. Blue is now dying. We get a very unsettling tracking shot of Blue clumsily approaching his car as life slowly fades from his body. The tracking shot is all wobbly, representing the difficulty that the dying Blue faces just to get to his door. The fact that there’s no music or sound with the exception of footsteps and the cold breeze of air is what makes it so disturbing. We feel the same lingering presence of death that’s hovering over Blue. He then gets in his car, pukes blood, and dies. Truck then confronts Dorinda and shoots her to death in the chest. I remember watching that for the first time and thinking “There’s no way he just did that.”

Overall, Truck Turner  is an absolutely fun joyride of a film filled with great action, bonkers humour and some real ballsy moments as well. You can tell that Kaplan and Hayes had some real fun on set which transcends on screen. Of course, Kaplan is able to prove his talented film-making skills as well in scenes like the chase and the climax. It’s sadly overshadowed by films like Foxy Brown which is also great, but what I like about Truck Turner is that while it does have its humour elements, it’s still a much more serious and mature story within the blaxploitation subgenre.

❉ ‘Truck Turner’ (1974). Director: Jonathan Kaplan. Screenplay: Leigh Chapman, Michael Allin, Oscar Williams. Starring: Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, Nichelle Nichols, Charles Cyphers, Scatman Crothers, Stan Shaw. Distributed by American International Pictures. Run time: ‎ 90 minutes. ‘Truck Turner’ Blu-ray (101 Films) released 15 May, 2017.

❉ Brian J. Heistan is a 20-year-old film enthusiast and writer from Illinois. His favourite genres are horror, science fiction, westerns, war dramas, and crime films. Brian loves to share his passion for classic and cult movies.

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