Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Truck Turner (1974)

Director: Jonathan Kaplan                                Writers: Oscar Williams & Michael Allin
Film Score: Isaac Hayes                                   Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler
Starring: Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, Alan Weeks and Nichelle Nichols

After the massive success of his soundtrack to the film Shaft, Isaac Hayes was able to position himself as a movie star for a couple of years during the tail end of the Blaxploitation craze. But while certain among those films continue to be relevant as cinema today, Truck Turner isn’t one of them. This was the second of two films Hayes starred in, after appearing in Three Tough Guys the year before, and was intended to be the bottom half of a double-bill with Foxy Brown. And while the film is unable to rise above an execrable screenplay and some terrible acting, Hayes himself, along with the great Yaphet Kotto, manage to hold their own. The odd nature of the story—Hayes as a bounty hunter who never gets hassled by the police, even after killing half a dozen people—only makes sense in retrospect. The initial plan for the film was to have an aging star like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum play the lead, but the low-budget nature of what American International Pictures could produce kept even those stars away, so studio executive Larry Gordon made the decision to hire a black principal cast and have the screenplay rewritten accordingly.

The film opens on the streets of L.A., with Hayes’ impressive opening theme. It’s not the equal of Shaft, but it definitely has the composer’s often imitated and never equaled sound. Once inside Hayes’ apartment the phone begins to ring, and a slow, loving pan across the place reveals something on the order of an anti-Shaft, in the way that there are dirty dishes, empty food containers, and a general mess. His partner, Alan Weeks, is calling to say they have a job picking up bail jumper Don Megowan. After a run in with the guards on the Army base they finally convince officious major James Millhollan to release Megowan and Hayes goes mano a mano with him in a field after being taunted one too many times. After taking the prisoner to jail, the two men collect their pay from bail bondsman Sam Laws. Later, defense lawyer Dick Miller needs the two to pick up a dangerous pimp, Paul Harris, and so the first place Hayes and Weeks go is the beauty salon. According to Hayes, “If you want to find a rooster you got to check out the hens.” There he finds Harris’s woman Nichelle Nichols who, in spite of her fury, exposes Harris, all of which leads to a car chase and a shoot out. When Harris is killed, Nichols gathers all of the major criminals in town, including Harris’s enemy, Yaphet Kotto, and puts a contract out on Hayes. The last third of the film is Hayes having to kill or be killed as they all go after the money.

In terms of the acting Weeks is, well, weak. He’s good looking on camera but tends to overact. The same goes for Nichols. But for all of them they are saddled with a profanity and n-word laden script that contains nothing close to subtlety. Hayes’ relationship in the film is with Annazette Chase, which could have been interesting but isn’t given enough time to go anywhere. Scatman Crothers makes an appearance as a retired pimp, Stan Shaw as a hood, and Eddie Smith as a dope dealer, but to little effect. If there is one element of the film that stands out, however, it’s Kotto’s death scene. It may be one of the best in all of cinema. The realism is so startling I’m tempted to say the film is worth getting just for this, but the presence of Kotto in the second half of the film as well as Hayes and his score are two more reasons. At the end of the scene comes the startling use of a body camera pointed up at Kotto’s face as he stumbles toward his car which, while not unique, is used so infrequently in twentieth century film that it draws attention to itself in a good way. Had Hayes’ score for Shaft not been such a monster hit, the Truck Turner score might have done incredibly well, but by then Stax was on its last legs and the score wasn’t quite as memorable. Ultimately, Truck Turner is not a good film. By this time Blaxploitation was on the way out and it shows. Bad acting and a horrible screenplay doomed it to be little more than a low-budged embarrassment. Watch it for Kotto and Hayes’s score, but don’t expect more.

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