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Monster trucks initially didn't appeal to me at all. Nothing like that had ever piqued my interest.  As a kid, I was into things like dinosaurs and monster-monsters not "big trucks," and I never went through an obligatory manly car phase of any sort. Smashing shit can be cool, but I have always preferred being the smasher in that case, not just some asshole watching from fifty feet away. From my limited knowledge (completely formed by Matchbox cars and cable television) it was an amalgamation of NASCAR and wrestling, and for a long time, that appeal escaped me completely. Altogether, it had some exciting components (the word monster, a "bigfoot," possible explosions), but it just didn't seem to be my type of jam, and I kept my distance. That was until, dragged along by a pushy family friend, I actually attended a real-life monster truck rally. Not fifteen minutes into the event, did I realize I had judged monstrous trucks too harshly. At an elementary level, I had imagined the event correctly, as it centers around some big ass trucks going in circles, driving off ramps and crushing cars. What I didn't account for, in my ignorance, was the in-person experience and overall spirit that comes from sitting in a crowd while that happens. Like all magic, It's hard to explain, and it has to be experienced to be truly understood. It's basically like watching a sport; you cheer when something "good" happens. Only, in the case of monster trucks, there isn't really a competition going on in front of you, just random acts of twisted mechanical violence. There are no permanent teams, important stats or designated moments of happiness based on geographic happenstance, you yell or act excited whenever the fuck you want. If seeing a truck do donuts gets you going, throw a whistle its way--same goes for any time flames shoot out of something. Fireballs are almost always tight in my book, so after I see one, of course, I'm going to cheer like I'm my dad when the Patriots just scored a touchdown. Included is all the good stuff you get with baseball games, nachos, beer, eccentric sunburnt nutbags, sans the boring sports part and substituted with chrome-plated chaos. It's pretty much a circus, only instead of abusing animals they playout the exciting vehicle moments from action movies--live.  It is like an artsy Vegas show, and a schlocky trash tape had a baby, starring big-wheeled mechanical creatures that each get a theme. Still in the parking lot, immediately after that first gasoline rodeo, I had to ask myself,  "How have I shunned something so beautiful?"   Right there, I vowed to look upon majestic beasts of motorized metal differently. Eventually, The new life philosophy also led to me watching Rolling Vengeance (1987). 
As the latest in a dynasty of gruff trustworthy truck drivers, Joey "little Joe" Rosso’s (Don Michael Paul) life is mostly going to plan. He is somewhat adequate at what he does, has people that love him, and he seems to be content with his place in the world. His father Joseph "Big Joe" Rosso (Lawrence Dane) has recently handed down a sizeable new rig, and Joey is in line to inherit a profitable Canadian outfit with a pre standing reputation for reliable goods transportation. This vocation also lends time and resources to his hobby of fashioning custom big-wheeled projects to show off at "truck shows." Last but not least, there's also his long-time squeeze Misty (Lisa Howard), a playful and beautiful moral activist who he hopes to marry someday. Unfortunately, Lil' Joe's life is not without issues. The majority of his problems, like everyone else in town, stem from the rowdy hicks found at a strip-club up the street. Recently, the spoiled redneck sons of the bar owner "Tiny" Doyle (Ned Beatty) have taken to terrorizing citizens through acts of reckless intoxicated driving. The straight-shooting "Joes" make their living on the road, so this doesn't sit well at all, but as the strip club/evil guy HQ is one of their biggest clients, they continue to deliver alcohol to the establishment. This professional policy works for a while until younger Joe has trouble hiding his disdain for the murderous hooliganism, causing a big ass party-foul and an awkward interaction during a Jack Daniels drop off. Big Joe tells Joe minor to chill, but the animosity puts a target on Joey's back, and the strip club bros take to dismantling his life with impunity since their dad is the wealthiest asshole in town. Eventually, when everyone he loves has been sexually assaulted and or gruesomely killed with no repercussions, the former "Little Joe" decides he has had enough and takes justice into his own hands. Retrofitting his big-wheeled, flame snorting show rig into an instrument of mortal justice, he hits the road to avenge his family, fight for sobriety and leave greasy stains on the pavement. Remember kids, only dead bad-guys drink and drive.
Rolling Vengeance is a cinematic ode to extreme vehicle antics in the form of a lopsided crimefighter tale with the style-sense of Sam Elliott and a melted Hot Wheels collection. Starting as a slow showcase of a trucker family's daily happenings, the story tries to drive home the good old boy vibes whenever possible. There is plenty of denim-clad conversation between scenes involving a deep, only slightly disturbing, love for engine drawn carriages. Partially saved by rambunctious pacing, the atmosphere is a little dry, and an extended amount of time is spent on compounding tragedy. Two parts movie of the week and one part Death Wish II (1982), it's determined to spread enough character depth around for the emotional impact when each loved one gets attacked. Ultimately, I had popped the flick in to see the truck-thing plow through thugs, but the time spent on our vigilante's life, pre vehicle upgrade, gives the revenge a fully formed Spiderman-like point and provides some sappy accidental comedy, so it's not a complete waste. The bad guy, on the other hand, gets almost no background or motive, besides being the more drastic version of Porky from Porky's (1981). His cronies aren't painted with any reasoning for their behavior either, besides being drunk asshats. While never dull, the film starts to feel like an extended road safety and drunk driving PSA dramatization involving a black and white moral standoff between cliche salt of the earth characters. It's only at the halfway point that you get a hint that it might all be worth it, as there is a cornball proto death machine-building montage to the soundtrack of a knock off Chevy ad and the random strippers (in the out-of-place clips) take their tops off. Once it gets going with the promised schlock, it packs as much cartoon hijinks into the remaining runtime as it can. Striking fear into a criminal when it appears on the road, the truck is presented as less a weapon, and more Joey's alter ego. Its eventual killings are deceptively lighthearted and come with an adventure-like goofiness that laughs in the face of the tone's tendency to take little other things seriously.  Like a pattern, the fun, almost comedic, revenge killings are followed by quick hamfisted reminders of how terrible the situation is. Then it’s back on the road to squish goons with a smile. By the time the antagonists are mounting some weaponized machinery of their own in the final battle, the story has pretty much trailed off into a makeshift Robot Wars (1993) in a junkyard with some kind of country-fried moral honor on the line. Even though the movie comes equipped with most of the right pieces, fully assembled, it's far from a revenge thriller by my qualifications. However, it is a redneck Punisher rip off with a lot of origin story and all-terrain tires, so I'm not mad.
There isn't much graphic violence on display. Most of the brutal stuff is cut away-from or only implied. Instead, the film shoots its load with cheer-worthy practical destruction of both vehicle and structure. Without an ounce of computer assistance (outside of the totally rad opening logo), the film consistently supplies a string of car battles, crashes and explosive impacts, shown from varied angles. Holding together like a trusty hoopty, the rest of the film’s technical qualities can't be faulted much, outside of being cheap or generic. Lighting is one size fits all (not counting the strip club) and exists just to make sure everything is seen. The editing and camera work during the destruction is more worried about showing it off than anything and lets the events speak for themselves. It reminded me of the "Truck, Car, and Tractor" compilation tape ads that played on TV when I was a kid. Far from the low budget action we get today, the film’s most minuscule throw-away stunt can be fully recognized as a lot of hard work from a skilled performer. During the film's titular "vengeance" sequences, the music and framing take on an almost Saturday morning theme. I got visions of Captain Planet showing up to teach polluters a lesson, only instead of a stern talking-to, he runs them over in a flame-shooting gas guzzler. The truck's final form is a masterpiece of functional prop creation. It looks like you could drive the thing off the movie lot in every scene and start hunting down drunk motorists in the real world. Style-wise it's got a budget Mad Max midboss mixed with a broken RC toy thing going on. Packed with backyard batman armor, expressive flames and a drill, honestly, it needs its own slightly exaggerated action figure. Between its altruistic theme music, the practical effects, and the laughable revenge killing, I was quickly swept away into the corny motif the super truck brought along. I soon forgot how I had waited though almost an entire drivers ed tape of low budget melodrama.
Before conducting this television epic in 1987, Candian director Steven Hilliard Stern had already helmed almost forty projects, including cult Tommy Lee Jones flick The Park Is Mine (1985), a wide range of TV works, and a bigger budget feature film that hasn't aged well at all (The Devil and Max Devlin, 1981).  After his foray into rubber and steel driven justice, he continued to make small screen action thrillers and direct random episodes for Canadian productions throughout the 90s. He quit directing after 1999's The Dream Team, and his last film credit was as a writer in 2004 for a WWII documentary. His daughter Jana Stern provided wardrobe and costuming on Rolling Vengeance in one of her first gigs. She would go on to do the same for a range of projects from Air Bud (1997) to Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003) and is still in the business today. Michael Thomas Montgomery wrote the script. The man only wrote five films total, including Eye of the Tiger (1986), so his batting average on rewatchable trash is admirable. Plus, his short, straight to tape career is filled with Cynthia Rothrock,  Fred WilliamsonRobert Forster and a lot of Gary Busey.  With an immediately recognizable face, Ned Beatty mixes Boss Hogg with Clarence Boddicker to bring animated life to a thinly scripted Tiny Doyle. Ned has shown up in a lot of weird shit and done a good job, so unsurprisingly, he plays the corrupt sleazeball just as easily as he does lovable, doofy friend or wise old guy. Also, for once, it's not entirely his fault I kept getting slight Deliverance vibes at inappropriate times. I didn't pick him out at first, but lead actor Don Michael Paul is something of a b-movie renaissance man. Along with other acting roles in classics like Robot Wars and Brisco County JR, Paul has worked both as a writer and director since the 90s. In 1991 he manifested another (more often mentioned) cult tribute to the engine, writing the script for Mickey Rourke/Don Johnson action team-up Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). Still active today, the jack of all trades is behind several straight to DVD sequels including a recent Tremors. Here, he slides right into character with cartoon altruism, dramatic outbursts, and the perfect hairdo. Big Joe is played by veteran character-actor Lawrence Dane, whose long continuing filmography covers favorites like Scanners (1981), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), and Bride of Chucky (1998). Making up the rest of the cast is a slew of virtually unknown actors who are both well picked and seem able to fill in where the writing only infers. No matter how silly the whole thing gets, all in attendance fully embody their assigned tropes, extremes, and surface-level attributes in the best way. There are currently no awards for acting of its type, and it's not necessarily natural, but must be impeccably aimed to make the particular content work. The dialogue is a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread but served with all the enthusiasm available in rural Canada and a cool four-wheeled gimmick, it's a fucking full-fledged Happy Meal.
Rolling Vengeance is a paint by numbers revenge tale featuring beneficial practical effects and an emotional guy in a big rig, which has some entertaining trouble staying in the lines. It's not the motor oil flavored The Exterminator (1980) I had originally imagined, coming closer to Walking Tall (1973) forcefully repurposed into a big rig themed, comic book origin story. The movie advertised in the poster shows up noticeably late in the feature, but Vengeance does indeed roll, and the extensive filler has its own value in my opinion. Maybe, I simply like seeing shit get broken, smashed or crashed into by a hulking vehicle, but fuck it, fun is fun. I'm not going to wear a Gravedigger t-shirt or anything, but I like to think monster trucks have helped ignite something positive inside me.  It has served me well to have an open mind about things like this, in most cases anyway--Nascar is as I had initially thought, pretty fucking lame.
1h 30min | 1987
Director: Steven Hilliard Stern
Writer: Michael Thomas Montgomery


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