Truck Turner February 12, 2021
oul singer Isaac Hayes plays the title character in Truck Turner (1974) — a former football star who now works in Los Angeles as a bounty hunter. It’s thankless work; a successful capture is usually anticlimactically celebrated over drinks with Turner’s partner, Jerry Barnes (Alan Weeks). But Turner seems above all to enjoy himself, and he’s good at his job. Six feet tall and brawny, he’s a fittingly
imposing presence. In early scenes, he suggests indestructibility — there is no fistfight, car chase, or shootout he won't win. “If anyone tells you what happened, tell them that a truck hit you,” he advises a freshly beat-up room’s worth of opponents as his lip drips blood. When Turner enters a room, he commands it — like the air is yanking the heads of onlookers to turn toward his gleaming bald one. When he walks through a beauty salon’s doors looking for a lead in one early scene, a patron can’t help herself from voicing admiration. “Check out that big piece of chocolate cake!” she exclaims, a cloud of wolf whistles and giggles trailing behind her.
Hayes, in his second starring role (and fresh from his Oscar-winning score work on 1971’s Shaft), is a more effective than outrightly gifted actor. But he slips into this role with the ease of a puzzle's completing piece. This performance is so likable in part because the musician seems to relish being in front of the camera (Hayes acted infrequently). Especially in early scenes, when he and Weeks make the most of a playful and familiar interplay between explosions of bounty-hunting violence, I thought Hayes might have been well-suited to a lighthearted starring role in a TV crime procedural. He’s as comfortable at the center of action sequences as he is with offering sharp-tongued, plot-pushing dialogue.
The first half of Truck Turner, one of the best movies borne of the blaxploitation era, mostly involves Turner and Barnes tirelessly pursuing Leroy “Gator” Johnson (Paul Harris), who is considered among the city’s most infamously vicious pimps. Their trailing climaxes with a wide-ranging pursuit by car that briefly transitions into a feet-on-the-ground chase through a water plant’s annals. It isn’t that flashy a sequence — its most memorable visual might be Johnson’s Barbie-pink convertible plowing through a flower stand, showering Turner’s windshield with roses and carnations. But it’s fluid and thrilling, and director Jonathan Kaplan so cohesively establishes how much ground is being covered that for a moment the movie feels larger scale than it is. Turner and Barnes wind up with their hands on Johnson earlier than we’d expect; it isn’t very long before they’re clinking glasses at a darkly lit bar a little ways from the office. This whole stretch of the movie is delivered with so much infectious self-amusement and funny-suspenseful tension that I thought that if it wound up made up of little more than subsequent “episodes” matching this sensibility, I’d be content.
But Truck Turner goes somewhere darker; the tonal shift is fortunately smooth enough that we don’t really notice it — like this was where the road was always meant to lead. Johnson’s lover and right-hand woman, Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols), is so angry when the former is killed by Turner in self-defense that she decides to put a bounty on the man responsible. A bonus: If one of the city’s major pimps manages to put Turner’s head on a proverbial skewer first, Dorinda’s property — that is Johnson’s leftover stable of sex workers — will also be the avenger’s.
Dorinda, who appoints herself Johnson’s successor, is played with lovably excessive viciousness by Nichols; she offers the movie’s wickedest-cum-funniest lines, and before spitting them out chews on them like her words were the best thing she’s ever eaten. She establishes her glamorously dressed vitriol in an early scene where she tells a living roomful of sex workers now indebted to her — a “Fort Knox in panties,” she says — that they’d better not leave like a couple of their colleagues did. Because if those women ever return, she says with her eyes ablaze and teeth so gritted they could crack a diamond, “I’m going to cut their fucking throats.” She says all this in front of an enlarged black-and-white wall portrait of Johnson; it’s like his zoot-suited spirit is happily watching the proceedings. The camera momentarily positions itself behind the room’s fireplace, and temporarily the dressed-in-red Dorinda looks like a demoness who has risen from hell. Satan’s better-dressed replacement is here; you’d better offer to carry her luggage. There are plenty of movie villains that stick around in the memory because the actor playing them seems to love embodying their ludicrous evil. Nichols is in that camp.
Soon much is at stake for Turner. We know as much when people and things he loves become targets among the power-hungry criminal cabal after him. Not even the overfriendly kitty living in his apartment is safe. The bulk of blaxploitation thrillers in Truck Turner's peer group kept their tongues firmly in cheek throughout their runtimes; they stayed, for the most part, emotionally gaudy and tonally pulpy. But this movie feels like a cut above once it sheds the friskiness of its opening stretch. Some writers have noted the movie feels spiritually similar to an Elmore Leonard novel — a canny observation. In many of Leonard’s works, from Maximum Bob (1991) to Rum Punch (1992), a whip-smart hero competently worked their way through a line-up of dangerous criminal personalities (many of them equal parts colorful and buffoonish); they remained more in control than anybody threatening to shake the ground underneath them. They’ll make it out alive, but you can sense the toll it’s going to take on them in the long-term. These thrills are thrilling, but they aren't
Truck Turner is a spirited and exciting movie; it’s made additionally appealing and distinctive because of Hayes’ soundtrack, which easily complements the film’s ever-changing moods. (I laughed out loud when one of Hayes’ ballads started playing over a love scene in the making between him and movie girlfriend Annazette Chase — what would she think if it were emanating from a pair of speakers diegetically?) Truck Turner, based on a story by Leigh Chapman (who used the pseudonym Jerry Wilkes), was initially envisioned as a star vehicle for someone like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum. As much as I enjoy Marvin and Mitchum, especially in the context of a crime drama, I’m glad those plans fell through. By putting Hayes at its front, Truck Turner proves itself one of the most irresistible — and singular — action movies of the period. A