TRUCK TURNER (1974) Blu-ray
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Oscar winning composer and legendary Stax recording artist Isaac Hayes appears in his first and only “lead” starring role of the 1970s, the outcome being one of the quintessential blaxploitation movies in American International Pictures’ (AIP’s) canon. Kino Lorber Studio Classics now revisits the rough and tough exploits of Truck for this most welcomed Blu-ray release!

Former pro footballer Mac ‘Truck’ Turner (Isaac Hayes, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) is a tough, modern-day bounty hunter, known in contemporary language as a skip-tracer. In the Los Angeles area, he and his partner Jerry (Alan Weeks, BLACK BELT JONES) embark on a strenuous assignment to track down Gator (Paul Harris, THE MACK), a coke-dealing pimp who has skipped. After loosing him during a turbulent chase (in cars and on foot), Truck eventually locates Gator's hideout and is forced to shoot him dead in self defense. Gator's main squeeze is a whore hoarder named Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols, THE SUPERNATURALS) and she wants Truck killed for the damage that he did. She takes a contract out on Truck's life with Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto, ACROSS 110TH STREET), suave head of organized crime in the city, in turn offering herself and her stable of girls as a reward. Now Truck has to elude or overcome every local killer sent after him, and he protects his fed-up, jailbird girlfriend (Annazette Chase, BLUME IN LOVE) by framing her for shoplifting so she’ll be in the safe custody of the police!

Young Roger Corman alumnus Jonathan Kaplan – who later graduated to more mainstream Hollywood work such as THE ACCUSED and UNLAWFUL ENTRY – simply delivers one of the best blaxploitation films of all time. Commencing with a series of amusing vignettes, it unfolds like the wrapper of a sweet candy bar, filled with all the characteristics that make an exploitation flick so enjoyable, with a number of sight gags and subtle humor to be found within. The well-orchestrated climax – involving a wild shootout within a hospital’s rooms and corridors – is a spectacle to behold! You would think that having a soul musician step into the role of a black action hero would be a big mistake. Wrong! Hayes, who of course composed the Oscar-winning score for SHAFT (and composes the equally memorable score for this film), is a natural from the moment he walks on screen, and he eases into his character so smoothly. You'd swear you met this guy somewhere before, even though he may be larger than life, and he is so utterly likable for a guy who is constantly shooting at people or kicking them through a glass phonebooth. Unlike most other black celluloid heroes of the time, Truck resides in a cramped apartment, cluttered with empty beer cans, pizza boxes, and old Stax records. And, unlike his contemporaries, he is afro-less, and he's given a buddy (Weeks, who's great fun). The two converse in so much jive that you might need a translator, but it all works very nicely, with the dialogue being realistic and anything but politically correct, and appealingly so.

Former "Star Trek" cast member Nichols affirms her diversity by portraying the most foul-mouthed madam you'll ever witness ("I haven't had to sell my pussy since I was 15 and found out I could sell other bitches instead!"). Yaphet Kotto plays his villain role with his usual engrossing professionalism, and there are a number of other sleazy characters for Truck to come in conflict with. It's amazing that this is Hayes' only real starring role, but if every blaxploitation star had a single standout film to recommend, he accomplished it in one shot. TRUCK TURNER comes highly recommended even if you are not a fan of the blaxploitation genre!

If that isn't enough to recommend it, how about a bevy of amusing cameos: The incredible Dick Miller (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) as a desperate bail bondsmen who meets Truck’s and Jerry’s price, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US star Don Megowan as a captured child-molester that Truck pulls over to brawl with after some racist comments, a toupeed Scatman Crothers (THE SHINING) as a retired pimp, "Little Rascal" Stymie Beard as a prison guard, John Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers (THE FOG) as a drunk, Richard Selzer/Blackwell (yes, “Mr. Blackwell”) as an alley wino, stocky John Dennis (SOYLENT GREEN) as the guard of a pimp’s mansion and future LEGEND OF THE WOLF WOMAN actress Annik Borel as a crazed (and topless) prostitute! Even the director himself does a background bit as a longhaired chef.

First released on DVD from MGM in 2001 as part of their “Soul Cinema” series, Kino Lorber thankfully upgrades that release with this Blu-ray which utilizes MGM’s recent HD transfer. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD and the quality never fails to impress. The elements are in immaculate condition, so the transfer is very clean on the whole, with colors maintained vividly and fleshtones perfectly presented as well. Grain is light and filmic in appearance, with detail being strong and the numerous well-illuminated outdoor downtown Los Angeles scenes having a nice natural look to them, while black levels are solid throughout. The DTS-HD Master Audio English 2.0 track replicates Hayes’ funky score quite nicely, while dialogue and sound effects also come through strongly. No subtitle options have been provided.

Director Kaplan is also on hand for a wonderful audio commentary perfectly moderated by Elijah Drenner. Kaplan reveals how he got the job after doing THE SLAMS with Jim Brown, being hired by AIP to direct an action film to star either Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum. After he signed on, he learned that his star was to be Hayes, who he hit it off with from the start (and they both had a love for Otis Redding). Kaplan is full of great stories about the casting (identifying a number of surprise cameos from crew members and friends), the editing and the shooting in various LA locations, and he specifies when actors improvised and tells such anecdotes as Crothers not being able to remember his lines (responding to cue cards) and that Kotto took the job since he was going through a costly divorce and looked at this film as a sort of comedown in his career. Kaplan also mentions how much fun they had making the film (and how much freedom he had) on such a tight schedule and low budget, that Hayes and Nichols got along “like a house on fire” and what the reactions were like when AIP’s offices saw his dailies (and a scene during the hospital massacre that they demanded be edited out). There’s an excerpt from a 2008 Q&A session (7:28) videotaped at The New Beverly Cinema with Kaplan and the film’s stunt coordinator Bob Minor, hosted by Joe Dante (a character is actually named after him in the movie). Kaplan mentions how tricky it was to get Kotto to be in the movie and shares other tidbits addressed in the commentary, such as how Hayes and his whole band played the entire score for him when he went to his house to take a listen. A “Trailers From Hell” segment (2:47) has filmmaker Ernest Dickerson talking over the original trailer, saying how he feels Nichols stole the film from Hayes and noting how great the dialogue is. The longer AIP trailer is included ("Hide your mamas, big brother is coming, and he's coming on strong!") as is an original combo radio spot with FOXY BROWN (both of them narrated by the great Adolph Caesar). (George R. Reis)