Judge Paul Corupe deals two-fisted justice to this Isaac Hayes vehicle.
"If anyone asks, tell them you've been hit by a Truck!"—Truck Turner (Isaac Hayes)
In his first on-screen role, Isaac Hayes graduated from blaxploitation soundtrack composer to blaxploitation hero as Truck Turner, a skip tracer fighting for his life against a syndicate of pimps and hustlers. Although Hayes is well supported by a strong cast and good direction, Truck never seems to get out of first gear.
Facts of the Case
When Truck (Isaac Hayes, Uncle Sam) and his partner Jerry (Alan Weeks, Black Belt Jones) are forced to kill a bail-jumping pimp named Gator (Paul Harris, The Mack), they suddenly find themselves the target of revenge. Gator's partner and girlfriend Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek) has offered Gator's stable of working girls to the one pimp who can take Turner out.
Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto, Alien) knows that taking over his main rival's operation would give him a lock on the city's prostitution trade, and conspires with fellow pimp Desmond (John Kramer, Hollywood Boulevard) to bring professional killers in on the job. After Turner handily disposes of the hired help, Blue decides to get personal by going after Jerry and Truck's girlfriend Annie (Annazette Chase, The Toy).
After Shaft and Superfly proved popular in the early 1970s, Hollywood found they had an untapped audience for revenge fantasies with African-American leads. Low-budget studio American International Pictures (AIP) cornered the market with similar, crowd-pleasing films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. These films varied in quality, but each featured tough men (and women) fighting for justice on their own terms, and decrying "The System" as a source of poverty and crime in the black community. However, blaxploitation was never the most serious of genres, and by 1974, the films had already become formulaic and self-referential. Already late in the cycle, AIP's Truck Turner offers up blaxploitation clichés only as set dressing. Despite a good effort by director Jonathan Kaplan, nowhere will you find the gritty film noir quality that lies in the heart of the most memorable entries in this genre.
It only makes sense that Isaac Hayes eventually starred in his own blaxploitation film. Vaulted into the public eye for his Oscar-winning "Theme from Shaft," Hayes cuts a dangerous figure with his clean-shaven head, stocky build, and booming baritone—features he makes good use of in Truck Turner. In fact, Hayes often relies on his imposing presence to make up for his shortcomings as an actor. Foreshortened shots of Turner with a .357 Magnum in his menacing grip appear no less than four times during the film, and Hayes tends to speak more with his fists than anything else. And no wonder—when it comes to interactions with other characters, Hayes is easily outclassed by superior actors like Yaphet Kotto, who is letter perfect as the smarmy villain Harvard Blue.
Truck Turner also treads dangerously close to self-parody. Jonathan Kaplan clearly gained a campy sensibility directing drive-in flicks Night Call Nurses and The Student Teachersfor Roger Corman's New World Films. Here, the most familiar elements of blaxploitation are rehashed and exaggerated, including a sizzling soul soundtrack (courtesy of Hayes), high-priced prostitutes, custom Cadillacs, and outlandishly funky clothing. There are even direct "in-references" to earlier films in the genre. In a scene where Turner dangles Gator's flunky out the window to learn the pimp's whereabouts, he tells the two-bit hustler to "sprout wings and fly away, Superfly," before learning that Gator lives "across 105th street"—a nod to MGM's Across 110th Street.
What really makes Truck Turner pale in comparison to superior blaxploitation films is a lack of a social conscience. Don't expect any Superfly-like rants against "the Man"—violence and crime are neither glorified nor condemned in this film, just presented for our entertainment. This might be forgivable if Truck Turner could make the grade as an over-the-top action film, but it doesn't. Although the multiple chase sequences are generally well directed, they are undermined by the script's poor characterization. Yaphet Kotto is almost wasted, as Harvard Blue doesn't even appear until halfway through the story, and Truck Turner simply doesn't have the charisma to carry the film until we get there. By the time Turner straps on his gun to seek his revenge, you probably won't care if he succeeds or not.
MGM graces this release with a simply adequate presentation. Truck Turner looks fairly good for its age, but the transfer appears soft, and is subject to occasional graininess and dirt. It's a step up from previous VHS versions, but not by much. On the other hand, the mono track sounds flat even for a mono track. The film's score is clearly presented, but dialogue is occasionally muffled and the volume must be turned up to catch everything said.
A trailer is the sole extra on Truck Turner. While most of the other entries in MGM's "Soul Cinema" line are also bare bones, the few that do boast commentaries have left me wondering why MGM couldn't have included a track with Hayes and Kaplan. Revealing their intentions for the film not only would have been informative, but may have also redeemed some of the content. I'd be interested to hear what Hayes has to say about acting in the same film that he also wrote the music for.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Besides some memorable one-liners, there are some hilariously campy moments in Truck Turner. Out of all the ridiculous outfits, none stands out more than the wardrobe of Desmond, the white pimp whose bejeweled eye patches are color-coordinated with his satin cowboy shirts. There's also something funny about watching Nichelle Nichols, better known as Star Trek's Lt. Uhura, play against type as a foul-mouthed madam out for blood. Undoubtedly though, the highlight of this disc is the funky score. While none of the individual tracks may be as memorable as the "Theme from Shaft," Hayes presents a tight collection of instrumentals and love ballads that give the film a personality he was unable to provide as a performer on screen.
Far from a bad mutha, Truck Turner lacks the grittiness of more notable genre efforts like Superfly and Coffy. It feels more like a typical 1970s drive-in cheapie than a bona fide blaxploitation film. Although MGM's DVD presentation is budget priced, picking up the soundtrack may ultimately be more satisfying than owning or renting the DVD.
The rest of the cast is free to go, but the bondsman is hereby notified that Isaac Hayes is to be brought before the court for skipping bail on the commentary track.
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• Original Theatrical Trailer
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