Robin’s Underrated Gems: Truck Turner (1974)

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a B-movie that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Blaxploitation pictures were hugely popular in the seventies and audiences really didn’t ask for too much from them. As long as there was a lot of action, some gratuitous nudity, a funky soundtrack and a badass African-American protagonist sticking it to “The Man”, everyone was satisfied. American International Pictures was the king of grindhouse drive-in exploitation movies for three decades, so of course, they were responsible for releasing many of the most popular blaxploitation flicks. Truck Turner is probably one of their most underrated because even though it delivers everything its target audience expects, it’s a lot more stylishly directed and sharply written than it has any right to be. Isaac Hayes had won an Academy Award for writing and singing what is undeniably the most famous blaxploitation theme of all time, “Theme from Shaft“, so it seemed inevitable that he would eventually want to translate his successful music career into acting. Hayes finally made his debut in front of the camera as the title character in Truck Turner and also composed the film’s terrific soundtrack. Even though Shaft is far more popular and well-known, I consider Truck Turner to be a superior film.

Truck Turner is another one of those projects where the hero of the original screenplay was initially a white guy (actors such as Robert Mitchum or James Coburn were considered for the role), but once the blaxploitation film found popularity, rewrites were done in order to fine-tune the story to the genre. Of course, if Truck Turner hadn’t been made as a blaxploitaiton picture, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun. The character of Mac “Truck” Turner is a former football star who had to retire prematurely because of an injury and now has to work as a skip tracer. Truck and his partner Jerry (Alan Weeks) make a living at tracking down dangerous criminals who have jumped bail and at the beginning of the film, are assigned to go after a pimp named Gator. Incidentally, their bail bondsman is played by B-movie icon Dick Miller and any movie that features Dick Miller in a pink suit is destined to be a winner in my eyes.

The plot of Truck Turner is pretty simple, to say the least. The first half involves Truck and Jerry tracking down Gator and killing him. The second half involves Gator’s partner, an evil madam named Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols), swearing revenge on Truck and putting a contract out on his head. To do this, she brings in a group of assassins that are lead by another pimp named Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto). That’s about all there is to the movie, but it’s done with a lot of style, wit and humour. In particular, this scene never fails to crack me up every time I see it.

Like I stated earlier, the directing, writing and acting in Truck Turner are a major cut above what you’d expect from a grindhouse blaxploitation film. This was an early directorial effort from Jonathan Kaplan, who would go on to do some major films in Hollywood, including the acclaimed courtroom drama, The Accused, which garnered Jodie Foster her first Academy Award. Despite a relatively low budget to work with, he proves himself to be quite adept at staging action sequences and delivers some pretty exciting chases and shootouts. The film contains some surprisingly inventive and stylish camerawork and delivers a violent climactic shootout inside a hospital that may have been an inspiration for John Woo’s epic hospital shootout in Hard-Boiled. While Truck Turner doesn’t have a lot going for it plot-wise, the screenplay does deliver some pretty colourful characters and a lots of surprisingly witty dialogue. A lot of the character interaction is quirkilly and sharply written, particularly the relationship between Truck and his kleptomaniac girlfriend, who is always getting arrested for shoplifting.

Isaac Hayes proves himself to be a very good action hero in the title role and it’s a shame that he never really got the chance to play too many more leading roles. It goes without saying that Hayes’ soundtrack for the film is consistently awesome, and the title theme was even recycled by Quentin Tarantino for the scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 where Uma Thurman escapes from the hospital. Yaphet Kotto makes a solid villain in the role of Harvard Blue, but the real revelation in this film is Nichelle Nichols. As I’m sure everyone knows, the original Star Trek cast are so associated with their roles that anything else they may have done in their careers is virtually forgotten about. Well, the role of Dorinda in Truck Turner couldn’t be any more different than the role of Uhura, as Dorinda is one of the most angry, hateful bitches ever committed to celluloid. Nichelle Nichols is simply sensational in the role and very rarely have you ever wanted to see a female villain get their comeuppance more than her. This clip features many of her highlights from the film and shows that Nichelle Nichols is a much more talented actress than anyone would have ever thought.

Those scenes with Dorinda are just one of the reasons why I think Truck Turner is a much better film than anybody gives it credit for. The character has so many wonderfully colourful lines of dialogue (“I haven’t had to sell my pussy since I was fifteen and found out I could sell other bitches instead”) that you’d almost think that the film had been written by Quentin Tarantino himself. While I would never hail Truck Turner as a cinematic masterpiece, I think there’s something to be said for filmmakers who are assigned the job of making an exploitation film that exists only to make a quick buck, but still go the extra mile to make sure it’s a quality film. Truck Turner is simply one of the most purely entertaining blaxploitation films out there, which never takes itself seriously or worries about making any profound social statements, and just delivers a tremendously fun time. I’m going to heartily recommend this movie to all of you, but just remember: anybody ask you what happened, tell ’em you been hit by a truck! Mac “Truck” Turner!

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