Running time: 91 mins
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Starring: Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, Alan Weeks
Genre: Blaxploitation, Action
Jonathan Kaplan is not exactly a household name but the television programmes that pay his bills are. Kaplan’s tours of duty include twelve years on staff at Warner with E.R, a further three on Without a Trace and is now plying his trade on A Gifted
His position in the centre of the mainstream circle has not always been were Kaplan has resided. In 1972 he had just finished a racy little film called Night Call Nurses and was just two years away from cementing his place on the jagged edge of the Blaxploitation movement. Man.
The early seventies was the be all and end all of Blaxploitation, having supplied the most recognizable score black cinema has ever seen with Shaft, Isaac Hayes [5x5] had stepped into the frame as a leading man and all the machismo that comes with it. Having starred alongside Fred Williamson and the always brilliant Lino Ventura in Three Tough Guys it was on Hayes’ shoulders, in only his second film, to carry the movie. What nobody could have known was how perfect this casting was, with Hayes not only do you get a tough talkin’ lead but a classic score and his full musical entourage.
Having watched Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner in a relatively short space of time the first and most striking impression from Truck Turner is just how well the film has aged. The film has a shine to it that a lot of titles from the era don’t have, whether it’s something in the production value or the caliber of the director or cinematographer it’s unclear but like Coffy, Truck Turner has stood the test of time in ways that others like Abby The Black Exorcist, Dolemite or Three Tough Guys has not. It’s evident that, even in 1974, there was more cogs to the wheel that was the production of TT and it’s remastering for DVD release through MGM most certainly highlights that even at the time the equasion was simple. Black actors + white film makers = green.
Mac ‘Truck’ Turner (Hayes) is a former American football star turned Bounty Hunter who’s been hired to bring in a mean thug turned pimp by the name of Gator in to face his court date. When things take a turn for the worse and Gator ends up dead his madam turns all her influence to the local pimps and killers to being Truck down for a slice of Gator’s estate. The biggest fish in the crime syndicate pond, Harvard Blue (Kotto) sets his sights on the spoils and the death of Turner.
The cinematography of Truck Turner has such a distinctive style to it that with directors like Tarantino, Soderbergh and Rodriguez on the scene it’s as fresh as ever. Two cinematic moments with the use of framing and movement spring to mind as being perfect examples to just how relevant this film remains. When Truck pulls his gun on an assassin who’s fired at him on the way home from grocery shopping the use of the camera to almost invade the muzzle of the gun is beautiful, likewise when Truck is marching down the corridor of the hospital to visit an injured friend his eyes fixed as he breaks the fourth wall before walking through it. These techniques were at the cutting edge of
Hollywood cinema and to the films create is something of a trail blazer. Truck Turner was experimenting with the notions of the fourth wall some two years before the finest piece of cinematic cat and mouse was released (Taxi Driver) in which the director freely always characters to exit and re-enter shots from different sides of screen and in doing so gives them the power to occupy the space that only exists in the audiences psyche. The use of colour is, unsurprisingly, as brilliant as it is brash. The rich costuming of the characters is a genuine joy and serves to highlight just how much influence this genre of cinema still has over directors, actors and culture in general. Special acknowledgement needs to be reserved for Yaphet Kotto’s (Blue) wonderful white suit and the denim eye patch worn by one of his associates.
The one man army that is Hayes delivers another fantastic score, like Shaft and Three Tough Guys his ability to understand the raw emotion of the scene is always pitch perfect cool and never without a taste of cool. Hayes signature is undeniable and because of his influence in music over the years remains timeless.
As an actor Hayes has rarely been better than he is as the tough Bounty Hunter Turner, in Three Tough Guys there was a feeling of uncertainty that was present in scenes which he had to carry himself but, no doubt, advise passed on by Ventura and a production on a larger scale has presented him with the challenge that he relished in rising to. Over the years Hayes has, by and large, been handed tough masculine roles to perform and having mastered them so skillfully has become more two dimensional in his performances. This is not the case in Truck Turner, as he is a hungry actor who is still learning his trade and is arguably still being sculpted by the directors he is working with. Kaplan has been able to highlight the natural strengths of Hayes while at the same time playing towards flashes of sensitivity, fun and camaraderie that all help flesh out the character and it works. This is only Hayes’ second film and he is already being asked to carry the bulk of the narrative, it’s a testament to his natural talent that he looks as comfortable and as experienced as any on screen including Yaphet Kotto who by this point already had twenty three titles under his belt including Live and Let Die and The Thomas Crown Affair. Kotto is excellent, he’s always excellent. If there’s one actor working who you can trust will deliver it’s Yaphet. His character isn’t given the greatest amount to do, as the timing of the film plays to an almost Hitchcockian Psycho structure, by this I mean that it’s almost a film of two distinct and separate acts. Act one features the antagonist Gator and with his demise the emergence of Blue as lead antagonist, by which point the narrative has taken on a pace that doesn’t allow for a great deal of exposition. Kotto does however catch up and in doing so grabs some truly beautiful moments on screen. One in which he’s haggling with Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols best known as Uhura in Star Trek) over the fee for Truck’s dead and the second being his last scene in the film which is played so slowly and honestly that it’s eye opening as to how other actors haven’t thought to play it that way. Similarly Hayes’ reactions to Kotto’s performance are perfect in this scene.
The supporting cast are perhaps one of the strongest you’ll see in a Blaxploitation film, rarely is the talent so evenly spread across all the performances but for everything that’s great there’s always one that’s more great than others and Nichols’ performance is the one that truly stands out. Nichelle’s almost masculine qualities in her performance and her strength in character is something that is not largely seen so evidently in Blaxploitation ladies (unless you’re speaking of stars like PamGrier). Even when the Blaxploitaiton female leads are being strong and tough it’s usually undermined with a flash of breast or cat fight to engage the male members of the audience. With Nichols this is not the case, rarely is she seen as an object of sexual gratification, even though she is obviously a sexual character. This is underlined when she says she hasn’t had “to sell her pussy since she was 15” and highlighted by the way she speaks of the women in her stable when introducing them to the would be assassins as little more than financial investments. The writing in this sequence, as with the rest of the film, is effortlessly cool while at the same time so rich that it almost develops the characters without the need for actors.
Truck Turner is a shining example of exploitation cinema done well by those looking to carve out a piece of the pie for themselves. It is not the raw, emotional, at times amateurish Blaxploitation of D’Urville Martin in fact it has more in common with Jack Hill and outside of the genre holds more than it’s own against other action titles like Point Blank and Bullet. What Jonathan Kaplan has crafted is a beautifully timeless, effortlessly cool cinematic masterpiece in classical Hollywood narrative and a great example of Blaxploitation for those looking to cut their teeth on the genre before venturing deeper and deeper into the most urban of genres.