Junkfood Cinema: Truck Turner

By  · Published on February 5th, 2010

Oh holy hell, lock up the granola and put on your novelty bibs because it’s time for another obnoxiously tall helping of Junkfood Cinema! This is the only column on the internet that spawned a Mothers Against Drunk Driving offshoot called MAJFC; doesn’t really have the same ring to it does it? Each week I slather myself with the cream of the crop of bad films that tickle my fancy despite their questionable merit. Like the principal behind our consumption of fast food or candy-coated…fast food, I am well aware that these films are bad, but I can’t get enough of them. In that spirit, along with an overview of the shortcomings of the film itself, I will pair each cinematic disaster with a tasty food complement sure to rot your teeth and widened your waistline as well as your taste in movies.

Well it’s February, and while that means I have staved off this column being canned for another month, it’s also Black History Month. Therefore, in my warped sense of logic, I could think of no better tribute to this solemn, introspective time than to review a boat load of blaxploitation films. For those of you who are unfamiliar, blaxploitation was one of many exploitation film movements of the 1970’s. Though its roots are films by black filmmakers that challenged the white establishment and gave African-Americans a way to operate outside the overwhelmingly Caucasian studio system, what eventually happened is that white filmmakers saw the potential market for these films and started churning them out by the bucket-load. While a number of these films were still entertaining, the controversy inherent was that they were stereotype-driven in order to appeal to both white and black theater attendees.

On the upside, this subgenre of film provided opportunities for African American performers who otherwise may not have ever found work. Pam Grier was a staple of Roger Corman’s women-in-cages genre but she became an icon when she played the vengeful Coffy. Richard Roundtree’s performance as the baddest mofo’ on the force in Shaft established his cult legend. And if not for the soundtrack of Shaft, would anyone have known who Isaac Hayes was? He may never have become the voice of Chef and, more terrifyingly, would not have starred in one of my favorite blaxploitation films of all time: Truck Turner.

What Makes It Bad?

Like several other blaxploitation films, Truck Turner relies not on form, nor function, but coolness. It mattered little if each shot was framed precisely (with both actors visible) or that the sound wasn’t perfect (are they having a conversation inside an oil drum?) as long as the bad guys were bad and the good guys were badass. We need not worry about things like acting, or making sure random elements like sprinkler systems don’t detract from our shots, or if every line of dialogue makes sense. There is a scene where the pimp is telling her colleagues how each of the girls in her stable earned their nicknames. When she gets to the one they call Boeing 747, she tells her to show them why she’s called that, and the woman just wiggles. Maybe it’s because I’m a nervous flyer, but I don’t really jive with the comparison of a jet to an girating ass. So if technical competence is what you require of your films, this may not be the movie for you. But if you are satiated by the sight of Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols as a female pimp in giant, silver pants, Truck Turner is your Citizen Kane.

Whoever got the bright idea that Isaac Hayes would make a good leading man is clearly not equipped with all their visual faculties. The women are cued to go bonkers whenever he enters the room despite the fact that he partially resembles a bearded hunchback. He’s about as sexy as a bag of turnips but he does have a voice as smooth as whiskey on ice so I guess that’s a plus. And boy is he smooth with the ladies! Men in the room, take note. When a woman says she wants flowers, what she’s actually saying is that she wants a six pack of cheap beer and a half-eaten chicken leg. Hot! Hayes spends a good deal of the film shirtless. Now I’m not saying that he’s overweight, he’s just built like a flour sack and his physique doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a character who spends a good deal of the film shirtless. I found it funny that his apartment is adorned with fast food bags and sandwich boxes as if they knew this was not a action movie stud we were dealing with.

The music in Truck Turner is mostly terrible. Being that the music was all written, produced, and performed by Isaac Hayes this is doubly troubling. The music he created for Shaft defined the sound of an entire genre. The music in Truck Turner does little to advance even this one film. I will admit that the theme heard throughout the film, the one featured in Kill Bill, is fantastic. But the love song that plays when Truck is alone with his woman sounds exactly like all the ridiculous songs Chef would sing on South Park,and yet we’re supposed to take these moments seriously. I think my favorite moment of musical ineptitude however was the scene where Truck and his partner are shaking down a witness. They drive over a hill, park at the base, and walk over to a phone booth. An heroic, call-to-action music cue commences with the scene, and then dies instantly. Now I’m not saying I expected any one music cue to last indefinitely, but maybe it’s a good idea to not abruptly cut the music if what follows is a solid minute of nothing happening. It was bizarre; as if the song was supposed to be coming from the car radio and ends when it’s shut off.

Most of these characters, for living in a world of crime and danger, cannot operate a firearm to save their lives. The shootout at Gator’s place has to be the most awkward gunfight ever filmed. Truck’s partner flails wildly around piles of trash and flings the gun in various directions. Gator, in turn, stands like his leg is asleep and holds the gun as if it were as hot as the core of the Earth. The only person who can fire a gun properly is Truck himself, and that’s only because his gun is the size of an aircraft carrier. If you had to defend yourself with the freaking Hammer of Thor .44, you’d be sure to brace yourself properly before firing too.

Why I Love It!

There’s a reason the Alamo Drafthouse’s Mondo Tees chose Truck Turneras one of its icons of their Badass Cinema tee-shirt line. This film is a super-sized jug of awesome! How could you not love a revenge story involving a cool-as-ice bounty hunter, pimps, and topless stabbings?! For all my ribbing, Hayes is quite effective in the one-on-one intimidation scenes (like when he kicks a man through a phone booth). This one-man-against-the-mob element is textbook blaxploitation and it is just as satisfying in Truck Turner. Adding to the cool factor is Yaphett Koto. I’ve seen him in other blaxploitation titles, but his performance in this is top notch. He brings the same coiled intensity and command of the room that made his Kananga from Live and Let Dieso effective. And I’ll be damned if there isn’t a shootout in a hospital featuring a man in a full body cast laying suckas out cold. Take that opponents of universal health care!

I think my favorite scene in the entire film was the pimp funeral. If you thought these flesh-peddlers were super fly in their day-to-day lives, just wait to you see them mourn. It was like a cavalcade of lunacy as one by one they poured out of their over-sized town cars and paid their respects. I can’t decide if my choice for best dressed was the male Cruella De Vil or the Rhinestone Pirate! I think the male De Vil may get the edge as he was accompanied by a prostitute who thought it appropriate to wear her multi-colored clown wig to a funeral. For their part, Gator’s stable wore exactly what they wear on the job, except in all-black.

There are some really great action scenes in this film. The initial chase scene where Truck first goes after Gator is amazing. It is several different kinds of chase scenes all rolled into one pecan chase log. It starts off with a thundering car chase replete with pink Cadillac, wide-angle photography, and a parade of every cliche available for crashing into. Seriously, after the fruit cart and the flower stand all that was missing were the two chumps marching aimlessly from one side of street to the other with a giant pane of glass. From there it morphs into a foot pursuit through a water treatment plant, then back to a car chase, and then back to an urban foot race. It is splendid. I also love the way Truck is framed in one particular moment when he blasts a thug. He is centered right between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and they actually make Hayes look as though he equals their size. Awesome!

Junkfood Pairing:

Chocolate “Truck” Turnovers. Looking past the fact that I am recommending turnovers because of the hero’s last name, I hope the addition of chocolate doesn’t sound terribly racist on my part. But if I am going to aptly select these snacks to suit the films, I would be stupid to ignore it. Not to mention that I honestly believe chocolate turnovers are the most delicious of all the turnovers; nertz to you apple.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.