Trucker Movies: Black Dog (1998)

It's easy to miss Patrick Swayze. He had a handsome, rugged face coupled with a dancer's physique (he had studied ballet), and his film career combined some popular hits, such as "Dirty Dancing," with a remarkable collection of cult films, including "Red Dawn," in which Communists parachute into America, "Point Break," in which Swayze plays a surfer-bank robber, "Donnie Darko," in which he plays a motivational speaker/child pornographer, and the genuinely unique "Road House," in which he plays a bouncer in a world where bouncers are celebrities.

One approaches any film in the Swayze collection hoping that it might be such a film. The crime film "Next of Kin" isn't, despite the presence of Liam Neeson attempting a southern accent. "Steel Dawn" a "Mad Max" knockoff, almost is.

"Black Dog," a 1998 film in which Swayze drives a Peterbilt truck loaded with illegal arms to New Jersey, chased the whole way by rocker Meat Load as a Bible-spouting psychopath?

Yes, "Black Dog" is such a film. Admittedly, much of the film is competent without getting hysterical, so it doesn't quite reach the manic heights of Swayze's wilder films. Swayze is accompanied on his trip by singer Randy Travis, an undercover FBI officer played by Gabriel Casseus, and a dirtbag played by Brian Vincent, but only Vincent gets goofy with his role, playing his character as a twitchy, cheerfully stupid bumpkin.

Travis grins a lot and Casseus seems sort of nice, but neither make much f an impression beyond that. Swayze, in the meanwhile, plays his role with his typical earnestness; he actually spends a surprising amount of the film testing his truck tires by slapping them or bouncing a metal pipe off them, which is a nice character detail. Otherwise he just sort of grimaces, looks irritated, and makes occasional sardonic commentary, all of which he does well enough. But in his best roles, his mannerisms are made slightly ridiculous, as though the filmmakers themselves realized that this sort of laconic masculinity was a bit much. Here its played straight.

But what "Black Dog" lacks in terms of character it more than makes up for with stunts. Did I call "Steel Dawn" a "Mad Max" rip-off? "Black Dog" also seems to have cribbed a lot from the George Miller film, but, rather than borrow the director's futuristic worldbuilding, "Black Dog" borrows its taste for vehicular mayhem.

There is a lot of stunt work in "Black Dog," a lot of it, apparently, not especially safe; the film was reportedly fined for injuring crew members. The film was made in the days prior to extensive CGI, so when the film has muscle cars and big rig trucks smashing into each other, it does so by smashing muscle cars and big rig trucks into each other. These sorts of scenes come around every 10 minutes or so, are well-choreographed and lensed, and alternate between harrowing and eye-popping. If you liked the scene in  "The Dark Knight" when a semi-truck flipped completely over, well, that's this entire film.

And then there is Meat Load. He starts the film a bit on the silly side, with a turquoises bolo neckties and a tendency to clip coupons, but by the end of the film he is driving a red tractor cab, screaming Biblical phrases, and trying to push Swayze, as well as Swayze's wife and daughter, off a Jersey dock and into the ocean. He's the villain this film needed, and, honestly, also the villain this film deserved.

Swayze films are best when pitched at hysteria.


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