White Line Fever (1975)
Ah, the "trucksploitation" subgenre, where have you gone? from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, big rigs ruled the road as well as B-films and television. White Line Fever is just one of many low-budget movies in which a blue collar truck driver takes matters into his own hands, but it's one of the better ones that I've seen. This little gem is just out on Blu-ray with two more awesome exploitation films (Blind Fury starring Rutger Hauer and Silent Rage starring Chuck Norris), comprising "Payback Time," a triple feature from Mill Creek Entertainment. I've watched Mill Creek go from the crappy, public domain transfers found in those 100-movie-bricks that you used to find in the bargain section to legitimate, impressive releases of stuff like the complete series of Knight Rider and Miami Vice (thanks, Mill Creek!), and they're slowly establishing themselves as friend to the genre fan as their quality gets better and better. You can only see White Line Fever on their new set, and it looks better than it ever has.
I'm such a sucker for these kinds of movies. Give me a trucker flick set in the west with a classic seventies country music soundtrack and I'll be happy. B-flicks like Truck Stop Women (thanks, Patrick Bromley!), Convoy, and even later stuff like Over the Top are right in my lane. They're the ultimate working class empowerment fantasies, kind of like "Take This Job and Shove It" in movie form. White Line Fever is the story of Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan Michael Vincent of Airwolf and other awesome stuff), an ex-military man who buys a big truck so he can make some money hauling cargo cross country. What he discovers is that the trucking industry is completely corrupted, and he's going to get hurt if he isn't willing to play the game. Turns out, he isn't willing play the game, and dishes out some hurt of his own with a shotgun. And lots of Schlitz beer. My goodness, I have never seen so much beer in a single movie. Well, maybe in Smokey and the Bandit, but this may even have that one beat. I hope Schlitz feels like they got their money's worth, because this had to have been product placement.
This movie was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, the guy behind 1974's exploitation classic Truck Turner, starring Isaac Hayes. This was his follow-up, and it retains a lot of the same funky sense of cool, despite the western setting. The "chicka-chicka-bow-bow"soundtrack goes a long way to accomplishing this. Kaplan injects lots of action and unbelievable escalation that are the hallmarks of this kind of exploitation film, and even throws in some references to his mentor Roger Corman ("The Pope of Pop Cinema) and his pal Joe Dante (director of Gremlins and a ton of other awesome movies). It filmed entirely in the state of Arizona, and the desert might as well be another character.
Jan Michael Vincent is fine; his lack of star power and charisma give him the b-movie cache to be believable in this kind of role where the P.O.d truck driver is supposed to be Everyman USA. This isn't a dig at JMV; this is the same lack of star power and charisma that made Charles Bronson a household name. Vincent skirted fame during the '70s and '80s before eventually going down in flames due to drug addiction and substance abuse. According to the interwebs, Kaplan says that this is the movie where JMV was first introduced to cocaine, which--if true--gives the title White Line Fever a whole other meaning. Hey, while we're talking about him, has anyone ever seen Jan Michael Vincent and Axl Rose in the same room? I'm just sayin'. They could be brothers. Or an uncle and a nephew. Or the same person.
It's the supporting cast where this thing really impresses me. Kay Lenz (American Graffiti, House, and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown) is JMV's put-upon wife. Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles, Dr. Strangelove) is a trucking dispatcher, and L.Q. Jones (The Wild Bunch) is another. You might not recognize the name L.Q. Jones, but you'd know his face from every television show ever. Sam Laws follows his role in Truck Turner with this performance as Pops, and R.G. Armstrong (White Lightning) is basically a member of the trucking mafia. Most importantly to ME and maybe also to YOU the reader is the presence of Martin Kove and his chin dimple, made famous as Kreese, the awesomely-evil instructor of the Cobra Kai in Karate Kid, as well as Ericson, one of several bad guys that Stallone had to take out in Rambo: First Blood Part II. I don't understand why Martin Kove's chin dimple never gets separate billing. There are even more cool character actors in this movie, but I run the risk of being the only one that knows who they are and boring you (I was probably pushing it with L.Q. Jones), so I'll just say "everyone in this movie is great." And also, "strike first, strike hard, no mercy."
White Line Fever is somehow only rated PG. I guess this is because it doesn't have boobies or anyone snorting blow (that was going on behind the camera, not in front of it), so feel free to bring in your whole family so they can see people drink and drive, get run over by massive trucks, and shot in the face. This movie was made back when you could have a body count of 150 and as long as nobody said the F-word, you could get a PG. Nowadays if your movie has a body count of 150, says the F-word, and flashes a nipple (maybe two), there's no way you're getting a PG, buster. Nope. You're gonna get a PG-13.
This is one of those movies that lived and died in video stores. I guess it had a life back in the seventies in double features at drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas, but it was the video age that defined films like this and exposed them to the masses. Because of this, it's also the kind of movie that was almost completely lost when video stores went the way of the floppy disk. Watching it now is a surreal, wonderful experience because our culture has moved so far from the kind of movies that people wanted to see thirty and forty years ago. We're arguably in even worse shape socially and politically, but it looks like we'd rather watch Michael Bay Transformers movies than see the underdog get what he deserves through old-fashioned revenge. Our fantasies sure have changed. One thing hasn't though, and that's the value of watching a truck drive through a building at 80 miles an hour. Come to think of it, I guess that's exactly what we get from Michael Bay Transformers movies.