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Hipster Holy Grail: Battletruck (aka "Warlords of the Twenty-First Century") (1982)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Battletruck / Warlords of the Twenty-First Century is a B movie that plays it totally straight, and I'm not sure if that helps or hinders.  On the one hand, it's a blatant rip-off of The Road Warrior and addresses its subject matter too delicately, so being a bit campier would probably have made its flaws much more tolerable.  On the other hand, it held my attention throughout and was just good enough to push all the buttons it was aiming for.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The movie opens with some footage of a desolate wasteland and accompanying voice-over informing us that the world has ended.  Nuclear war this time, naturally - it was the '80s, after all.  Then we cut to a couple of hapless dudes who are transporting some cargo in a horse-drawn cart.

They are soon pursued by an enormous armored truck - a battletruck, if you will - which is being directed by the tyrannical Straker.  Straker fancies himself a military man and commands a squad of mercenaries with a strict sense of discipline.  He's lawful evil, is what I'm saying.

The battletruck overtakes the cargo and Straker finds some fuel in it.  After killing one of the cargo drivers, he threatens the other one and demands to know where they got it.  The surviving driver takes him and his men to an isolated compound where a fuel canister has been hidden underground, thinking Straker will either take him into his band of goons or at least let him go free.  Instead, Straker straps the driver to a tree so they can execute him.

Enter Corlie, Straker's daughter.  He demands that she execute the driver as a rite of passage; Corlie has yet to kill anybody, I guess, and Straker intends to one day pass leadership of the mercs to her.  Corlie refuses to carry out the execution, so Straker forcefully puts her hand on a weapon and shoots the driver, anyway.

Then he tells his squad to set up camp around the fuel canister - they'll live here from now on.  Now, due to the way the story has been written so far and all the shots that put the canister front and center and linger on it, you might think this is building up to something or that the fuel will play a vital part in the movie's climax or something like that.  But as it turns out, this is pretty much the last you'll hear about that fuel or the mercenaries' new camp.  Pretty much the only useful plot progression so far is that we've been introduced to Corlie.

Repulsed by life with her father, she opts to run away the next morning.  Unfortunately, once it becomes clear she's left, Straker sends some of his men after her.  They chase her through some rocks and rough terrain, during which time she injures her leg and all but surrenders.

Fortunately for Corlie, there's a well-meaning stranger watching the scene unfold.  Hunter, a tough loner with a cool motorcycle he likes to pose with, zooms out of a hiding space in the distance and distracts the goons.  They chase him around for a bit, but Hunter's just so awesome on a motorcycle that he effortlessly ditches them and circles back to rescue Corlie.  They escape and make it to Hunter's compound.

There we get to learn the only three things you need to know about Hunter for the rest of the movie:

1) He's so resourceful and talented that he can be wholly self-sufficient, to the point that he scoffs at the very idea of society.

2) Regardless of Point 1 above, he likes people and doesn't like to see anyone get hurt.

3) He's madly in love with Corlie.  I guess because she's a woman.

None of this information is ever given any background or motivation.  Don't worry about it.  Hunter isn't a character - he's not even an archetype.  He's literally just a plot device so that Corlie's story can unfold.  I don't think I've ever seen a movie where the protagonist and ostensible main character is this simple.  Hunter might as well just be a really awesome rifle that Corlie found laying in the dirt - the story wouldn't really change, except for their sex scene later.  (Although, I guess you could have her... no, no, no, you'd cut that.)

Anyway, Hunter doesn't want Corlie to stick around his compound for too long - see Point 1 above - so he takes her to Clearwater, a settlement filled with rational, optimistic people.  Clearwater is a gentle paradise in the rough of the wasteland: it's clean, it has food and water, and the people govern by democracy.

Corlie meets Rusty (played by a mid-30s John Ratzenberger, which kinda blew my mind), a quirky inventor who shows her the ropes.  She quickly adapts to life at Clearwater and prepares to settle in for the long-term.  The people of Clearwater likewise adopt her readily, except for one dude who I think was named Willie - he's needlessly standoffish and seems to think she'll be trouble.

Anyway, life is good for, oh, a day or so, and then Straker tracks Clearwater down.  Corlie escapes, but the soldiers put the town under martial law and impress all able-bodied men into their faction.  The implication is that Clearwater is now going to be a slave town, but almost nothing of consequence is actually shown.

(Although I do have to give the movie some credit - there's one effective moment here where Straker's men go into a tent where the children have been huddled, and you hear some of the kids crying and murmuring, "I don't want to," while the parents try weakly to reassure them.  It's a gut-wrenching sound bite and out of place in the context of the rest of the movie.)

Corlie runs back to Hunter's compound and he takes her in readily.  They have sex, because nothing turns on a woman more than mortal fear, and Hunter vows to protect her.

Straker's men torture Rusty and he gives up the location of Hunter's compound, so the next morning they stage an invasion.  But since Hunter is such a cool dude, he effortless kills a dozen of them.  Considering Straker's total force is only about twenty or so, I feel like that means Hunter has already won the war.

Hunter escapes the invasion and regroups with the Clearwater citizens, who seem no worse for the wear following their run-in with Straker.  He forgives Rusty for giving up his location, suggesting that he was also tortured in a past life and empathizes.  With that water under the bridge, they work together on building a new, lightweight buggy as part of some awesome plan Hunter has to defeat Straker and ensure nothing terrible happens to Clearwater ever again.  (Unless some other asshole comes along, I guess.)

There's a montage of the Clearwater folk and Hunter working together, but then Willie turns traitor and abducts Corlie.  Hunter chases after him and Willie shoots him with a crossbow.  Injured, Hunter retreats to Clearwater while Willie takes Corlie back to Straker.  As a reward for Willie's efforts, Straker immediately beats him up.  I guess he's being jumped into the gang?

Back to Clearwater.  Hunter loses some blood, but gets patched up and is on his feet again the next morning.  He tells Rusty he's going to enact his final plan and takes his new buggy out for a spin.  Hunter drives it to Straker's compound, does some automotive gymnastics, kills a couple dudes with reckless driving, and then gets Straker and his remaining men to chase him in their battletruck.

The next part is a little confusing to me because it all seems to happen by chance, but the movie is trying to convince us that it was all part of Hunter's plan: he ditches the truck behind a mountain, leaves the buggy, gets into his motorcycle, and drives it off a ramp and lands into the back of the battletruck.  This part I can kinda believe, because once he's inside, he handily punches everybody into oblivion and leaps off with Corlie.

The part that's a stretch is when the truck driver tells Straker they need to stop because the engine is overheating, so Straker, in a fit of petulance, stabs the truck driver to death and the truck starts careening out of control, only to eventually plummet off a cliff and explode in a giant fireball.

Did Hunter really know that was going to happen?  Or was his plan just going to be to punch everyone, and then the careening-out-of-control part was an added bonus?  Just seems like an awfully lucky coincidence.

Anyway, all of Straker's men are now dead and Clearwater is safe.  But Hunter, despite his deep well of love for Corlie, has had enough of city life, so he heads off on the road alone for some new adventure.

The Stuff I Liked / Didn't Like

Battletruck is a surprisingly straight-laced movie, given its tone, subject matter, and budget.  You really expect something like this to be a little bit tongue in cheek, or at the very least indulgent in sex and violence.  But there's no gore, very little blood, no nudity, and an almost prudish level of restraint in its depictions of barbarity.

There are no characters, just broad ideas and motivations.  It makes no effort explore any of its themes or ideas - it just superficially touches on them and takes for granted that you know what's going on.  When something happens, you can practically hear the director flapping his hand at you and saying, "Yeah, yeah, you get the idea."  Even when the characters actually try to talk about their plight in plain terms, they don't go far beyond saying, "Jeez, the world's kinda shitty.  Welp, we'll just have to work together and fix it."

But there's so much hidden joy under the surface of the production.  The sets and costumes are fun, the music is joyfully inappropriate and synth-heavy, and the cinematography is chock full of wide, sweeping panoramas of the mountainous desert.

What it ends up being is a charming little piece of low-budget schlock.  If The Road Warrior is a grueling voyage into the heart of the desert where you come face-to-face with the corruption of innocence and the fall of man, then Battletruck is a carefree day trip on the sidelines where you never get out of the car, look at the corruption from a distance, say, "Oh, my, that's scary," and then turn around to go get fast food.  It's light, mindless fun.

It's lack of substance is ironically the thing I like most about it.  It's the movie that you put on when you want some of that post-apocalyptic flavor, but you don't want to take a full bite.

I don't think this one is a hidden gem, but I'd recommend it as a B-side if you're programming an apocalyptic movie marathon.  Battletruck is a welcome contrast to the doom-and-gloom pseudo-epics that most movies of this type try and fail to be.

The Part About Mistreatment of Women

Given my past complaints about movies that are overloaded with gratuitous misogyny, the following tangent may seem like I'm contradicting myself.  One of my biggest questions while watching the movie is: where's all the rape?

It's not that I want to see it, mind you.  I'm just not sure what we're talking about in terms of Straker's villainy.

When he invades Clearwater, he demands to know where "the women" are and his men make leering faces, implying that Straker's about to let them have their way as a reward for their loyalty.  But nothing is ever made explicit - or honestly, even all that implicit, other than the leering faces - and nobody mentions it ever again.  Even when Hunter rejoins the Clearwater citizens later and helps them re-organize, nobody seems terribly broken up.

I'm not even clear on what Straker's policy is toward his own daughter.  When Willie brings Corlie back to Straker's camp, Straker notices that she has some scratches and beats Willie up, saying that he'll never touch Corlie again.  So, okay, it seems like he's super protective and wants no harm to come to her... except that early on in the movie, you see some of Straker's men pouncing on Corlie and giggling creepily while she screams "No" and fights them off.  So which is it?  Is Corlie being routinely beaten / raped by Straker's men, or does Straker murder anybody who dares to touch her?

Or does Straker just employ the biggest idiots in the wasteland?  When they chase Corlie after she first escapes, they have no particular qualms about her well-being - didn't they think the boss might be mad at them if they hurt her?

Is it like a system of rewards he's set up?  Does he allow his men to beat / rape his daughter if they're extra good, and is that why he's so insistent that she stay with his squad?  Or is he just soooooo oblivious that he never noticed his daughter is constantly covered in bruises and squeamish around his men?

Again, I'm not saying I want to see women get abused.  I just need the movie to give me a little more information one way or the other.  You don't need to show me the horror, you just need to have somebody make a gesture or do that one extra little movement that tells us, "Yup, this is exactly what you fear it might me."

Then again, it could very well be that Straker runs a tight ship and doesn't tolerate rape at all.  That would be consistent with the rest of the movie - honestly, other than the part where he forcibly drafts Clearwater into his army and the scenes where he arbitrarily kills some people, Straker's not that bad as far as movie villains go.

Ultimately, Battletruck presents us with a very soft Apocalypse.  The wasteland is harsh, but the people are generally friendly and nobody seems to be starving to death.  Just don't try to collect fuel and you'll be fine.

Where You Can Watch

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright infringement, you can watch Battletruck on Youtube for free.

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