Looking for revenge? Go big or go home.
By Jason Hink
Kino Lorber Studio Classics has released Rolling Vengeance, the 1987 exploitation revenge flick from Apollo Pictures starring Don Michael Paul, Lawrence Dane, Ned Beatty, Lisa Howard, and one big-ass, mean, unnamed monster truck. Director Steven H. Stern’s mishmash of tones may be a sticking point for some uber-serious movie critics, but it only adds to the fun of this quickly paced, silly-but-vicious (and hilarious) action thriller.
In Smalltown, USA, young Joey Rosso (Don Michael Paul, Robot Wars) trains in the family business under his trucker father (Lawrence Dane, Scanners) when he’s stuck making a delivery of Jack Daniels to Tiny’s, the local strip bar run by slimy, unsavory client Tiny Doyle (Ned Beatty, Deliverance, White Lightning), who conveniently operates a used car dealership out of the parking lot (get ’em drunk, sell ’em a car). Tiny’s five backwater reprobate sons (each from a different mother), enjoy drinking, cussing, and raising hell, and get off scot-free after causing a brutal highway crash that kills Joey’s mother and young siblings (the court slaps them with a small fine, but nobody’s jailed for the crime). It could have ended there, but those hicks aren’t the brightest spawn in the pond, taunting Joey and his father as soon as they exit the courthouse, rubbing their good fortune in their faces and showing no signs of rehabilitating their criminal ways. More misdeeds follow, and after the Doyle brothers put Joey’s father in the hospital following another crash and rape Joey’s girlfriend (Lisa Howard, TV’s Earth: Final Conflict), he does what any man would do: build a monster truck and use it to get revenge on those hayseed f*cks.
If that description sounds serious and comical simultaneously, it’s exactly how Rolling Vengeance plays out. Poignant, serious family moments bizarrely intertwine with brutal action sequences, along with a brood of bad guys that are hilariously inept, yet do some truly godawful things. But those awkward shifts in tone somehow add to the overall flow of the film, as if producer/director Stern, depending on his mood that day, decided to pull on the heartstrings and wring out some serious emotion before realizing the next day he had to mix in an action sequence…or drive home just how backwoods the Doyle family is by juxtaposing their juvenile pranks (they drunkenly throw bottles of booze at Joey’s semi from the back of a pickup) with serious crime (two of these bumbling nitwits rape Misty, Joey’s girlfriend). But truly making this film memorable is the off-kilter, unhinged performance by Ned Beatty as Tiny Doyle, the idiot clan’s ringleader.
But before discussing the merits of the performances, I must talk about the real star of the show: the monster truck. Hollywood has never let a fad pass without attempting to exploit it while it’s red-hot in the public’s collective mind. But the monster truck fad came as close as any to almost slide by Hollywood’s radar, registering only a blip of interest from filmmakers in incorporating them into their projects. But why? (For a true “bad movie” experience, check out 1988’s Twister’s Revenge, featuring a talking (!) monster truck.) The monster truck phenomenon began in the early 1980s, reaching a fever pitch midway through the decade, with owner/driver/promoters no longer settling for sideshow status at mud bogs and auto racing events, but headlining their own shows with these gigantic trucks that grew even larger over time in size, speed and power, usually facing off in drag race-style events on fields littered with obstacles (most prominently those poor, normal-sized cars). The truck in Rolling Vengeance, sometimes referred to as “Rolling Vengeance” online, didn’t have a proper name in the film. It was built by Mike Welch, a well known, but fairly regional, staple of the monster truck community who was originally inspired by Bigfoot.
The monster truck fad dipped its toe in Hollywood waters on many occasions, mostly with bit parts in movies and television shows. The most well known of all monster trucks, Bigfoot, even scored its own Saturday morning cartoon series, Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, in 1985 (a serialized 9-week series of 6-minute shorts from the same studio behind ’80s ‘toons G.I. Joe, Transformers and Jem). But despite the trend’s overall popularity, it wasn’t until 1987 when Rolling Vengeance truly used the monster truck to its full marketing capabilities, making the truck the centerpiece of the sell in a bid to get all those (adult) monster truck fans to check out the film (it’s R-rated, after all). The result was underwhelming as critics at the time rendered mostly negative reviews, but for its intended audience (and kids like me who caught a sanitized version on basic cable TV a little later), it became a cult classic.
The film itself feels like it could have come from a previous era. From its small town, rural setting to the semi-trucks and pickups, the backwater country-boy characters, and use of the Citizens Band radio (the good ‘ol CB), it feels like it could have been conceived during the late ’70s alongside such CB-era staples as Smokey & the Bandit and Convoy (just nix the ’80s-centric monster truck fad). Rolling Vengeance is a basic revenge flick, but with a monster truck as the weapon of choice, as opposed to a car, or gun, or supernatural power.
As mentioned previously, the tone varies wildly, ranging from schmaltzy family drama to Dukes of Hazzard-like road comedy, and striking yet another chord with the menacing kills courtesy of the monster truck. An audio commentary on the Kino disc (by Canuxploitation‘s Paul Corupe and film historian Jason Pichonsky) touches on a few things that may have led to this contrast of styles, namely a discussion about scripter Michael Thomas Montgomery (Eye of the Tiger, South Beach), who at some point late in the story’s genesis changed the scope of the film from a vigilante flick about a man who rights wrongs by mowing down drunk drivers with a monster truck, to the story we get here, a man seeking revenge on the people who killed his family. It’s not entirely clear why the change was made, but it was apparently made close to the movie’s actual production.
But what good is a revenge flick without a great villain in need comeuppance? Enter Ned Beatty, killing it as boozy, strip club-owning, used car-selling Tiny Doyle. Beatty is so over-the-top, so manic and…so hilarious because of it, you get the feeling he’s actually hopped up on that whiskey he’s hawking to his patrons. (The dinner scene in the bar with his sons is a scream, and I busted a gut when a suddenly intense, serious Beatty, looking crazily wide-eyed at his sons after saying amen following a prayer, exclaims in his southern drawl, “F*ckin’-A. Honey, go get us some more potatoes.”) His physical appearance also deserves praise; he dons black leather, sports a 1950s-era greaser haircut, and even has a blacked-out tooth, emphasizing the character’s trashiness.
Beatty was a busy man in 1987, appearing in no less than four films following the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy, Back to School, his lone film that year. In ’87, he graced moviegoers’ screens with The Big Easy, The Fourth Protocol, Rolling Vengeance and The Trouble with Spies.
Others involved in Rolling Vengeance have had interesting careers as well. Star Don Micheal Paul became a force behind the camera, scoring a writing credit for Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man in 1991 and directing genre franchise sequels such as Lake Placid: The Final Chapter, Jarhead 2: Field of Fire, Sniper: Legacy, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Kindergarten Cop 2. Lisa Howard, a local Canadian actress (Rolling Vengeance was produced in Canada by an American company), snagged roles in beloved ’90s sci-fi shows Earth: Final Conflict and Highlander: The Series (prior to that, she made a few guest appearances in a personal fave, Tropical Heat, aka Sweating Bullets, a CBS latenight “Crimetime after Primetime” program in the early ’90s.) Lawrence Dane, meanwhile, would follow up with Millenium, the 1989 sci-fi thriller starring Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd.
But let’s not forget about the film’s real star… The monster truck in Rolling Vengeance is one mean looking machine. More sinister than what immediately comes to mind when thinking of monster trucks, it sports a flat black primer-esque finish with a large auger/drill protruding from below the front end (wreaking major havoc), and lighting up the sky with billowing flames shooting out the twin stacks on top for an eerie, scary sight when first spotted rumbling down a lonely highway in the middle of the night hungry for its first kill.
But the best part of Rolling Vengeance is its pace. The film is 90 minutes long, but feels much shorter, even with the monster truck not appearing until halfway through. For a movie released in 1987, it zips by, carried along by the changing tone and legitimate attempts at making the viewer emotionally invested in the protagonist’s family (Dane as Big Joe Rosso, Joey’s father, is especially good here, carrying emotional scenes with nothing more than his facial expressions, bringing a semblance of levity often not seen in your basic exploiter.) The wait for the monster truck isn’t so bad with such a good buildup to it.
Kino Lorber’s new (1.85:1) 1080P Blu-ray transfer looks great on my modest home set-up (much better than my old VHS copy), with good color and sound reproduction, especially when compared to the included unrestored VHS trailer. Other bonuses include an interview with star Lawrence Dane (Big Joe Rosso) and the aforementioned full-length audio commentary, which does a nice job of shedding light on some of the film’s trivia. Also included are trailers for other Kino-Lorber releases.
With some fun kills, a hilarious scene-stealer in Ned Beatty, a speedy 90-minute fun-time runtime, and the first (most prevalent) film featuring that sweet (but fleeting) ’80s monster truck fad, Rolling Vengeance is a great addition to the cult film collector’s library.