Rolling Vengeance (1987)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-06-28 20:40

Rolling Vengeance (1987)
Studio: Kino Lorber
Release date: October 17th, 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Stick around the exploitation circuit long enough, and you’ll see just about anything wielded as a murder implement. In fact, this was sort of the rigueur du jour during the 80s, when splatter merchants everywhere dreamed up increasingly outrageous ways to butcher people on screen. Eventually, screenwriter Michael Thomas Montgomery arrived at the notion that it’d be pretty awesome if a monster truck were the weapon of choice for a vigilante to mow down the scum of the earth. I cannot argue against the logic: it’s cool to see a monster truck wreck pretty much anything, let alone scumbag rednecks that deserve to be scraped from its blood-soaked tires. However, I would argue that Rolling Vengeance is perhaps not the best that it could be in this regard. Don’t get me wrong: this is a quaint little slice of Canuxploitation pie (or poutine—can you have a “slice” of poutine?), but it might almost be too nice. Leave it to Canada to produce the most charming monster truck slaughter movie imaginable, I guess.

It almost feels like a 70s sitcom at times, one where we’d watch the weekly exploits of the Rosso family, who are in the trucking business. Very into the trucking business, in fact—they’ve got their company name on the side of their rigs and everything. Patriarch Big Joe (Lawrence Dane) is an especially proud papa, as he’s acquired a new rig and affixed a new name to it: now it’s Rosso and Son Trucking, as Joey (Don Michael Paul) has committed to the family business. All isn’t perfect, though, as the Rossos constantly clash with Tiny Doyle (Ned Beatty) and his clan of hooligan sons: with gritted teeth, they make deliveries for this backwoods brood, who operate a local scumbag dive, a Swiss army knife of bad taste that includes a nudie bar and a used car lot. For no real reason at all, the five sons are complete assholes to the Rossos, going so far as to terrorize Big Joe’s wife and young daughters on the road until they’re rammed by a big rig in a fatal accident. Both a lack of evidence and Tiny’s influence with the judge means the boys beat the rap by only paying a $300 fine, a verdict that enrages Big Joe and his son, who vow to take their own vengeance.

Rolling Vengeance skims through several pools, some of them more disreputable than others: it obviously recalls the rash of 70s vigilante films but filters it through that era’s good old boy trucker pictures. At times, it does strive for the grisly spectacle of 80s action and splatter movies, yet never reaches those delirious heights. Basically, if you swirled the DNA of Smokey and the Bandit, Rolling Thunder, and Mad Max into a test tube with a keg of beer, you’d find Rolling Vengeance crusting up somewhere around the bottom. It’s arguably at its best when it’s just embracing its hayseed impulses: for a schlock movie with a howler of a premise, it invests a good chunk of its runtime in its characters before delivering the nastiness.

The Rossos are a genuinely likeable bunch, made all the more so by the actors’ and director Steven Hilliard Stern’s commitment to making them feel like average, do-gooder joes (I mean, two of them are actually named Joe, for Christ’s sake) just trying to scratch out a living. Big Joe is a terrific father who actually has reservations about his son following in his footsteps instead of going to college, and a later scene where he tinkers with his dead daughters’ music boxes is downright heartbreaking. You’re all-in on seeing him fuck up the goons who ruined his life.

Speaking of which, the Rossos’ affability is matched only by the Doyles’ unrepentant cruelty. Beatty is a legitimate, unhinged maniac here as Tiny, a role that has him putting a sinister riff on his doofus persona. There’s something about Tiny that makes you think he could be a completely harmless rascal in another life; in this one, though, he’s an outrageous hick, one of those asshole good old boys who thinks their transgressions can be forgiven by prayer. Nevermind that he doesn’t even know his sons’ names to eulogize them when they pass away—what’s most important is that they’re shown proper respect at the dinner table after their passing. He and his sons are such cartoonish assholes that they’re sort of a hoot, and you certainly don’t feel bad at all when Joey constructs an armored death machine to crush them to death.

While the vengeance itself could be a tad more impressive, it manages to satisfy the lizard part of the brain that craves destruction. Rolling Vengeance essentially has the same appeal as a demolition derby, something that’s patently obvious to Stern, whose wide-angle, slow-motion shots allow viewers to soak up the carnage. A film like this thrives on twisted metal and mangled flesh, and it delivers on the first quite well: granted, the marketing’s boast of 65 destroyed vehicles is a bit of a cheat since many of them are bulldozed in Tiny’s used car lot, but, rest assured, a lot of satisfaction is to be gleaned from watching Joey crush the Doyles beneath the wheels of his absurd monster truck. Looking like a cast-off from The Road Warrior, this makeshift tank almost becomes a character in and of itself, often rolling into the frame the same way a superhero does to save the day. I’ve never seen the Batmobile produce a giant drill with the explicit purpose of grinding someone to death, though.

What’s disappointing, however, is the lack of gore for such an obviously gruesome premise. Hardly a drop of blood is spilled throughout Rolling Vengeance, despite the fact that several of Joey’s victims would be reduced to a bloody pulp. Even a glimpse at some aftermath gore would be preferable to the way Stern just papers over the grisly details. On the one hand, I get it—Joey is painted as a righteous hero, and it’s perhaps easier to believe that if you didn’t see that he turned a dude’s head into sludge. On the other, I really like to see asshole rednecks’ heads turned into sludge. Had Stern indulged the full, gore-soaked implications of Joey’s rampage, Rolling Vengeance might have been a definitive entry in the “what the fuck?!” wing of the Canuxploitation canon; without it, it’s more of a hoot, at least for the most part.

Stern’s decision to sanitize the gruesomeness is in keeping with the film’s generally agreeable tone: this is a grindhouse movie that’s being careful not to feel too scummy, save for an ill-advised and wholly unnecessary turn towards sexual violence towards the end. It’s a turn of events that’s made especially galling when it’s practically forgotten, its victim more of a prop during the climax than someone who just experienced a legitimate trauma. Despite its grim story material, Rolling Vengeance isn’t really a movie about trauma, though, but rather a thinly-veiled excuse to stage vehicular carnage for a mass audience that wanted to see shit smash together before its characters walk off into the sunset, hand-in-hand as a soft rock song croons away, effectively making you forget that you’ve just watched one of them crush a bunch of dudes to death for an hour. It feels entirely too pleasant, yet somehow exactly right.

The disc:

Rolling Vengeance had been a long holdout on DVD and Blu-ray, having been absent from either until last October, when Kino Lorber finally dusted it off. Its long-awaited arrival was mostly worthwhile: the presentation is terrific, and Kino even included a theatrical trailer, an interview with Dane, and an audio commentary with film historian Jason Pichonsky and preeminant Canuxploitation guru Paul Corupe (so you know it’s legit). Maybe most notable, though, is a pull quote from Variety’s contemporary review, which claims Rolling Vengeance boasts “compelling echoes of Rocky and Death Wish,” leaving me to wonder if there’s some long-lost Rocky sequel out there where the Italian Stallion prefers vehicular manslaughter to settling issues in the ring. Is it too late for this to happen in Creed 2?
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