The Film: 4/5
Los Angeles' baddest bounty hunter Mac "Truck" Turner (Isaac Hayes) and his partner Jerry (Alan Weeks) are the guys you turn to when you want the city's toughest criminal quarry brought to justice as long as the price is right and you stay the hell outta their way. Their pursuit of bail-jumping pimp Gator (Paul Harris) results in the man's death when they're forced to take him down in a shootout, which compels his grief-stricken whore mongerer of a girlfriend Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols) to vow revenge. She assembles the city's finest hit men and pimps and offers the stable of gorgeous streetwalkers she inherited from the late Gator to the first man who sends both Truck and Jerry to their final rewards. The one who looks the likeliest to collect this king's ransom of profitable female flesh is the pimp Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto), and soon he and a small army of killers packing the finest firepower that 1970's currency can procure are gunning for our chrome-domed hero and anyone fortunate enough to consider him friend or family, including his gal pal Annie (Annazette Chase).
Truck Turner may not be the best movie made in the blaxploitation genre, but next to Coffy and Brotherhood of Death it ranks as one of my personal favorites. It's one lean, mean, fast-moving machine that crowds more colorful characters, gritty atmosphere, politically incorrect humor, and balls-out action sequences into one movie than you might typically find in at least five of the sort made in modern times. The future director of such acclaimed Hollywood hits as The Accused and Unlawful Entry, Jonathan Kaplan was the latest graduate of the Roger Corman School of Economical Filmmaking (better known as New World Pictures) to make his bones behind the camera helming such drive-in smash hits as Night Call Nurses and The Student Teachers before moving over to American-International Pictures to make Truck Turner, a far more complex and ambitious production than he was used to overseeing. As he proves in every frame, Kaplan had the chops to make an entertaining slice of crowd-pleasing schlock that would serve him well for the rest of his career as he moved on to bigger films like White Line Fever before finding his calling as a director of more serious fare with the likes of Over the Edge, Heart Like a Wheel, and Love Field to name a few. These days Kaplan works mostly in television, directing several episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and serving as a producer on E.R. and Without a Trace.
Scripted by Oscar Williams (Black Belt Jones) and Michael Allin (Enter the Dragon, Flash Gordon) - with an uncredited assist from Leigh Chapman (Dirty Mary Crazy Larry) - from a story concocted by Jerry Wilkes, possibly on a cocknail napkin with a few minutes to spare, Truck Turner was morphed into a starring vehicle for Isaac Hayes once his "Theme from Shaft" become a chart-climbing sensation and netted Mr. Hot Buttered Soul an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Having previously made his acting debut in Duccio Tessari's Three Tough Guys (which he composed the soundtrack for following his success with Shaft) opposite fellow blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson, Hayes was never destined to be as good in front of the camera as he was on stage or in the recording studio. But damn it all, he is Truck Turner. Hayes never appears awkward or stiff in front of the camera and has enough screen presence to make his title role a force to be reckoned with in the seedy world of pimps, pushers, and other unsavory criminal element that populate the City of Angels in Kaplan's movie. Though he lacks John Shaft's armor of cool self-confidence and sex appeal, Truck Turner is more of a working class anti-hero anyway - a blue collar average dude just doing his job and trying to earn an honest living. Hayes is excellent in a role that doesn't demand much from him on the acting side, and his skills as a screen performer would improve in the years to come. After all, he did go on to be the Duke of New York (A-Number One).
Kaplan had one of the finest casts ever assembled for an exploitation flick at his disposal. Every few minutes your eyes will bug out at appearances from Dick Miller (Gremlins), Charles Cyphers (Halloween), Scatman Crothers (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Stan Shaw (The Monster Squad) in supporting roles of varying length. No matter how little or much screen time they get, each member of the cast performs beautifully and without pretension. The bonafide standouts, however, are Yaphet Kotto and Nichelle Nichols. Kotto practically blows every actor in his orbit off the screen every time Blue is in a scene through his commanding presence and particular set of on-camera skills. He rarely speaks above a low volume because that's as loud as he needs to be. Kotto probably thought the role was beneath his talents, but he still brings his A-game to the performance and is as memorable in Truck Turner as he's been in future films like Blue Collar and Alien. But you will never be able to watch an episode of the original Star Trek the same way again once you behold the smoldering dynamo that Nichols plays here. She's a vulgar, vivacious hoot as the vengeance-crazed Dorinda, able to reduce the strongest person to a teary-eyed baby with the right laser-focused insult. As clichéd as this sounds, you're gonna love hating Nichols in this movie.
The action comes hard and fast in Truck Turner, with Kaplan delivering car chases that quickly become pursuits on foot, rough and tumble brawls, and violent shootouts with plenty of energy and squib-busting gusto. There is so much mayhem on display here, culminating in a gun battle inside a hospital that leads to one of the most disturbing and honest death scenes in the history of cinema. John Woo must have given this flick a watch prior to making Hard-Boiled. The bright red bow that ties this glorious package together is the funktastic soundtrack composed by Hayes that literally hits all of the right notes and can be easily enjoyed independently of the movie. It must have made a huge impact on Quentin Tarantino at the time; he borrowed Hayes' title track, the jewel of the entire soundtrack, to score the Bride's escape from a hospital in Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release of Truck Turner sports an impressive new 1080p high-definition transfer sourced from a print remastered by MGM and framed in the film's original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The picture boasts beautiful color reproduction and a fine level of natural grain. Small traces of print damage are there to be found, but if you don't go looking for them in the first place you'll barely notice them at all. No complaints with the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. The original mono soundtrack is replicated here with clarity and a lack of distortion or damage. Dialogue is clear as a bell, the music will have you dancing around your living room, and if you play it at top volume your neighbors will likely be calling the police on you during the multiple gun battle scenes. No subtitles have been included.
Leading on the solid supplements collection assembled here by Kino is an audio commentary track with director Kaplan moderated by Elijah Drenner. Kaplan's memory of the production is sharp and detailed given that Truck Turner was filmed and released more than four decades ago, and with the help of Drenner's insightful questions and observations he keeps the discussion lively with his anecdotes.
Kaplan also appears alongside fellow Corman grad Joe Dante and actor/stuntman Bob Minor for a Q&A at the New Beverly Cinema (7 minutes) where he shares even more interesting stories about Truck Turner, the best one being the time he went to Hayes' house to sample the work he had been doing on the soundtrack. Kaplan went in expecting his star and composer to play a few pieces on his piano and was instead rewarded with a live performance of the entire score by Hayes and his band!
Ernest Dickerson, who shot some of Spike Lee's best early films before graduating to a directing career that has so far included Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight and many terrific episodes of The Walking Dead, appears in a Trailers from Hell segment (3 minutes) in which he shares his love for Truck Turner while watching the original trailer. That trailer isn't presented here without Dickerson's commentary, but we do get another slightly longer (as in 5 minutes) trailer. Last but not least is a vintage radio spot (1 minute) for a double feature of Truck Turner and the classic Pam Grier action flick Foxy Brown.
Action! Sex! Laughs! More racial slurs than you'll find in the comments section of a Tea Party website....okay, maybe not that many, but you get my point. Truck Turner isn't my personal favorite blaxploitation movie for nothin'. Jonathan Kaplan's first solid action flick is a non-stop thrill ride with Isaac Hayes in his prime as all that is man and then some as the ass-kicking Truck. The movie gets a hearty high-definition upgrade courtesy of Kino Lorber in one of their finest releases so far this year. Highly recommended.