Friday, June 3, 2016

He's (Also) One Bad Mother: TRUCK TURNER

I have a great love for blaxploitation.  Sure, it’s exploitative (hence the term), and the characters are rarely shown in a completely positive light.  But characters were rarely depicted in a completely positive light in any kind of action movie from the ‘70’s.  Gene Hackman’s character from THE FRENCH CONNECTION was a total asshole; it was still a great movie.  More importantly, blaxploitation was about the only place African American audiences could see themselves centrally represented at the time.  Great blaxploitation movies were all about African Americans taking control of their situation and (usually) solving their own problems.  They even dealt with gender inequality by making women like Pam Greer stars of their own movies.  If not for blaxploitation, we would not even have the term badass.  Badass is the only word you can use for Isaac Hayes in TRUCK TURNER.  Well, that and slob. 

The Capsule:
Hard drinking, messy living, cat loving Mac “Truck” Turner (Isaac Hayes) is a skip tracer.  That’s bail bondsman lingo for bounty hunter.  He and his partner, Jerry, apprehend dangerous criminals who have skipped bail for ridiculously small amounts of money.  Sometimes they bring ‘em back alive, other times, less so.  Trouble comes when they take on a violent pimp named Gator.  Gator himself doesn’t cause that much trouble, because Truck shoots him.  Gator’s girlfriend, Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols), is the real trouble.  She rules Gator’s stable of prostitutes with an iron fist, which I guess makes her the Stable Mistress.  Not really up on my pimp terminology.  She puts out a hit on Truck, inciting her fellow pimps to go gunning for him.  Truck makes short work of them until the baddest pimp in town, Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto), brings in the heavy hitters.  They’ll go after his boss, his partner, his girl, even his cat to get Truck in their sights, but they’re going to find out no one hits harder than Truck Turner.

Truck Turner, played by and sung about by the legendary Isaac Hayes, is a bit of a mess.  He’s introduced waking up in his garbage strewn apartment wearing only his shoulder holster.  He has so much half eaten fast food around that he must have gotten his cat primarily for rat control.  I don’t see how he can be too mad at his cat for pissing on his last clean shirt.  I can guarantee that litterbox was not freshly maintained.  Besides, he wears the shirt anyway.  I hate to imagine what his other shirts were like if the one smelling of cat piss was his best option.  In addition to being a huge slob (which he resents being called), he’s not the world’s greatest boyfriend.  He forgets to pick up his larcenous girlfriend when she gets out of jail, and only buys her a box of chicken before taking her home to bone.  He does win her over with his tender side, though.  When it’s time for the lovin’, it’s hard for her to stay mad at Isaac Hayes.  Especially when Isaac Hayes is playing in the background.

This was only Hayes’ second movie, years before he would be the A Number One Duke of New York.  His delivery can be a little creaky at times, especially if compared to Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, which American International Pictures clearly wanted the public to do.  Hayes had just won an Oscar for the “Theme from Shaft”, after all.  Where Shaft is icy smooth and professional, Truck has a certain blue collar charm.  Very blue collar.  He and Jerry barely make enough money bringing in bail jumpers to get by.  The processing cop even makes a joke about it.  At least they are able to bargain slimy lawyer Fogarty (Dick Miller!) into giving them $1000 a piece for Gator.  Lucky for them they had a dead/alive clause.

Even for the ‘70’s, Truck has questionable morals.  He has no problem shooting someone in the back or finishing them off after they have been disarmed.  It’s never unprovoked, all of his targets are gunning for him, he just doesn’t believe in wounding.  If Truck only applied that kind of follow through with his cleaning habits, his apartment would be spotless.  Sometimes his methods can be extreme.  He dangles a creep out of a high window to get him to play ball, and even threatens to kill a totally innocent prostitute to get information.  To be fair, I’m sure he was only bluffing on both counts, but still.  That prostitute probably had a shitty enough life already.  She didn’t need Truck’s bullshit too.  

The pimp brigade in this is pretty great.  They are not quite as colorful as the pimps from BLACK DYNAMITE (Chocolate Giddy-Up!), but you can see where the influence came from.  One of them is a white cowboy pimp whose eye patch always matches his outfit.  The one he wears to Gator’s funeral is covered in rhinestones.  Another guy has fairly standard pimp gear, but one of his girls sports a rainbow afro (for clown fetishists?).  The procession of pimpmobiles following the hearse is also impressive.  The pimps are not just the comic relief though.  They are the major villains of the movie.  The film balances them well, showing them to be both horrible and ridiculous at the same time.  Even the retired pimp that Truck comes to for information (played by Scatman Crothers in an awesome toupee) slips a nasty streak into his benevolent elder statesman routine every once in a while.  

The worst of the batch is Nichelle Nichols, playing way against type as Dorinda.  She gives a very un-Uhura speech to her stable of girls.  While holding a pimp gathering, she introduces each one with a tally of their yearly earnings, like they were race horses.  In private, she berates them and threatens to toss them out of their posh life of degrading servitude.  Dorinda’s vendetta against Truck is the driving force of the movie’s violence.  She is foul mouthed, vicious, and cruel.  As far from her STAR TREK counterpart as you can get.  She certainly doesn’t do any fan dances.

Dorinda might be the nastiest, but the most dangerous is Yaphet Kotto’s superpimp, Harvard Blue.  Kotto is amazing in everything he does, and he absolutely shines here.  He’s introduced wearing a white crushed velvet suit and diamond studded tie.  Not a tie pin, the tie itself is studded with diamonds.  It must be dry clean only.  Most of the time, he comes off as chillingly commanding.  He’s someone you do not want to fuck with.  But he has his goofball moments, too, mostly relating to dialogue.  While trying to be charming with Dorinda’s girls, he says, “I’m rich, I have money, I’m cute, I’m handsome.”  He angrily describes Truck as “a bulldog with eyes up his ass.”  Is that a good or a bad thing?  I don’t see how that would be useful.  Regardless, it sounds badass when Yaphet Kotto says it.  

The action is nice and gritty, very ‘70’s style.  The first car chase has Gator’s pink caddie smashing into a flower stand, a baby carriage full of bagels (?), and a homeless man’s fire barrel.  The two guys carrying a large pane of glass must have been on a coffee break, because that’s about the only thing he missed.  The car even explodes while going over a cliff.  You would think it would blow up when it hit the ground, but fuel tanks were very touchy back then.  I love that Truck’s partner Jerry gets pulled over for speeding in the beginning of the movie, but the cops are nowhere to be found when he’s firing a gun out of his sunroof while zooming down a crowded city street.  There’s a great, knock down drag out bar fight that really takes advantage of Hayes’ imposing frame.  He really seems to be a guy who can take a pounding without slowing down.  When it comes to gunshots, they are not shy about letting the bright red blood fly.  Bodies explode like bags of red paint.  Half of their budget must have gone to squibs.  

The chaotic hospital shootout is a brutal and effective climax.  Not at the level of HARD BOILED, but still pretty satisfying.  It has a fantastic start.  Truck comes to visit his boss, Nate after Harvard Blue’s goons nearly beat to death.  While Nate is all laid up and bandaged in a hospital bed, Truck slips him a revolver.  When Nate asks him why, Truck says he might need it.  Literally one second later, Blue and his crew show up at the door.  Nate starts blasting from his bed and all hell breaks loose. Blue’s goons bite it pretty quickly, leaving Truck and Blue to go shooting indiscriminately through the hospital.  They knock down patients, disrupt operations, and send everyone diving for cover.  Blue ends up holding some little kid hostage to get out of there.  See, Truck, this is why we have such strict visiting hour policies now.    

As silly as this movie can be, Kotto has a legitimately stunning [spoiler] death scene.  It’s almost entirely silent, with an extreme close up on his face as he tries to walk away from a fatal wound.  He’s too tough to admit he’s dying.  

As typical with blaxploitation, the language can make a liberal white guy, like me, cringe.  It does have it's progressive side, though.  Most of the women in the movie are prostitutes and very one dimensional, but the role of Dorinda is extremely bold, if despicable.  Nichelle Nichols gets to be strong, sexy, and devious.  She really digs her teeth into it and is clearly happy not to be saying “yes, Captain” all the time.  Truck’s girlfriend, Annie (Annazette Chase) doesn’t have much to do, but is feisty and confident.  She calls Truck out on his bad behavior, and he seems to genuinely feel bad about itThey actually have a pretty sweet relationship, even after he sets her up for shoplifting to make sure she's out of harm's way. In the end, he wins her back by giving her kitten who also pisses on his clothes.

Director Jonathan Kaplan came from the Corman factory, so he was already versed in filming exploitation.  He had already done a Jim Brown movie (THE SLAMS) the year before.  He continued in the action vein for the rest of the ‘70’s, branching out afterwards.  He is probably most famous for THE ACCUSED with Jodie Foster, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her role.  Props to Foster, of course, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t have to go half the movie with a shirt smelling of cat piss.  That honor goes to Hayes.

C Chaka

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