If you were directing exploitation movies between 1972 and 1976, there was an above-average chance you would make at least one blaxploitation movie. Tons of top talent from the exploitation cinema world contributed to this genre during these years, including luminaries like Jack Hill, Larry Cohen, Arthur Marks and Jack Starrett. Jonathan Kaplan, a graduate of the Roger Corman school, was another contributor to this cycle – and he created Schlockmania’s all-time favorite blaxploitation opus in Truck Turner.
The title refers to the film’s hero, Mack “Truck” Turner (Isaac Hayes). He’s a skip-tracer: when a criminal skips bail, he’s the one sent out to bring them back, dead or alive. Truck is pretty good at his work and that becomes a problem when he takes down a vicious pimp named Gator (Paul Harris). This earns him the ire of madam Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols), who puts a bounty on Truck’s head by promising her stable of prostitutes to the player who can take the bounty hunter down. Soon, Truck and his friends are attacked on all sides by an array of gun-toting pimps, including the smart and deadly Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto).
Truck Turner has everything you want from a blaxploitation movie. The script, whose writers included Black Belt Jones scribe Oscar Williams and Michael Allin of Enter The Dragon fame, delivers plenty of action but also weaves in a thread of streetwise humor. It also supplements the straightforward plotline with some interesting vignettes that add texture: highlights include a pimp funeral and Truck visiting his girlfriend Annie (Anzanette Chase), who’s doing a stretch for shoplifting, at the county jail while the other female inmates lustily catcall Truck.
Truck Turner also boasts an ace cast. Not only does Hayes handle the action and humor well, he also brings an easygoing charisma that anchors the film’s wilder elements. Nichols gives a ferocious performance as the vengeful madam, showing she could have rivaled Pam Grier in the blaxploitation arena if she’d had more opportunities in this vein, and Kotto brings both intensity and intelligence to his bad guy role to flesh it out. Also of note is Alan Weeks as Truck’s sidekick: their banter carries the humor in the film’s first half. Elsewhere, Sam Weeks is touching as a bail bondsman pal of Truck’s who is thinking of retirement and Harris is downright terrifying in his brief but memorable turn as Gator.
On the casting tip, it’s worth noting that the supporting cast offers a litany of familiar faces in fun roles. For instance, you get Scatman Crothers as a retired pimp tended to by his women and Dick Miller as a harried bails bondsman who tries to haggle with Truck. Future John Carpenter ensemble member Charles Cyphers also turns up briefly as a wino. And the hits keep coming: Werewolf Woman star Annik Borel has a memorable cameo as a topless, knife-wielding prostitute, Stan Shaw plays a young pimp and future action movie regular Mel Novak pops up as a doctor.
Most importantly, the direction by Kaplan energizes the proceedings. He cut his teeth directing quickies for New World Pictures like Night Call Nurses and he imports elements of that house style here: lots of imaginative camera angles, breakneck pacing and some sly in-jokes (a hitman named Joe Dante!). He shows a flair for capitalizing on the color and quirky details of his locations and using stylization to make the energetically staged action pop on the screen: for example, the death of a bad guy near the end utilizes a bit of camera-mounted-on-actor wizardry right out of the Martin Scorcese playbook.
Kaplan’s stylish work is aided immensely by a talented group of collaborators behind the scenes. Cinematographer Charles Wheeler was a well-traveled d.p. who did a variety of t.v. movies, Disney fare and classics like Silent Running and he gives the film a bold look full of exotic camera placements, creative use of different lenses and plentiful color. This was an early editing gig for Michael Kahn, the future go-to editor for Steven Spielberg: he gives the film taut rhythms, particularly in the action, and also contributes a fine opening montage sequence (he even contributed some 2nd unit photography).
Finally, Truck Turner has the kind of lavish funk score that any blaxploitation classic requires. After his success with Shaft, it was natural to have Hayes handle the score here and he rises to the occasion: a dazzling main theme with percussive horn bursts, rich orchestration and double-time wah-wah guitar sets the tone for a score that melds classic movie scoring style with an array of blues, soul and jazz stylings. Its best moment is an epic, nearly ten minute cue that accompanies a lengthy car chase in the middle of the film: the fusion of Kaplan’s directorial verve and Hayes’ plush funk is as enjoyable as the blaxploitation genre gets. Needless to say, the double-LP soundtrack album is highly recommended.
In short, Truck Turner ticks off all the boxes for a blaxploitation classic: you’ve got a resourceful and streetwise hero, colorful villains, plentiful action, a little cheesecake, plenty of urban grit and a pulse-pounding score that keeps you grooving from start to finish. All these elements fuse together seamlessly to deliver what Schlockmania considers the most purely entertaining entry of its genre.