Sam Peckinpah spins a hit novelty song into an anti-establishment action movie.
Kris Kristofferson plays a charming and stoic trucker going by the handle “Rubber Duck,” one of a group of independent drivers repeatedly harassed and targeted for extortion by crooked sheriff Ernest Borgnine. When Kris and gang take a break at a truck stop there’s a confrontation and brawl with Borgnine and his deputies. The truckers become fugitives racing to make it across the state line. Ali McGraw plays a photographer who tags along with Kristofferson, and as the convoy rolls into yet more complications and trouble, they start to gather more truckers inspired by their adventure and defiant spirit. Before you know it, the highway is an parade of protesters beyond the horizon and an airing of the grievances on wheels; when asked what they’re protesting each trucker gives a different reason, some have no reason at all other than sticking it to the man, man!
If you’re looking for story and character, keep driving, Convoy has no map or sense of direction and misfires on almost all cylinders. There’s not much beyond the personalities the actors bring with them, and luckily with actors like Kristofferson, Borgnine, Burt Young, Franklyn Ajaye, they do have a lot of instant sympathy, solid presence, and in Kris’ case, leading man looks. But there’s no character development or story for them to work with when they’re not shifting gears. I didn’t find it funny where it’s supposed to be, and thought it got ridiculous where it’s wasn’t supposed to. Ali McGraw apparently joins the convoy for the thrill, but she never seems all that excited unless Kristofferson is romancing her. Frankly they both seem bored and hardly make the impact they were probably hoping for, with McGraw returning to the screen after five years away and Kristofferson going through a low in his musical career.
Taken just as a road movie, Convoy looks amazing. The truck footage, chases and crashes are thrilling and captured every which way, including slow motion, lovingly showing you truckers chucking their cargo on the road to make roadblocks, rolling over, totaling cars, putting ice cream trucks and school buses in danger or careening off bridges. Much of the work was done by Peckinpah’s second unit, since at this point he was often incapacitated due to health reasons or substance abuse. And by second unit I mean James Coburn, as if he could get any cooler. The movie treats the truckers as modern day cowboys; they brawl in epic slow motion, and in their rigs prepare for a showdown by lining up next to each other, or help each other squeeze police cars.
When the convoy gets big enough to attract national attention, Governor Seymour Cassell sees his opportunity to befriend the truckers and pretend to be a man of the people. At their meeting, news comes that one of the nicest truckers on his way home to see his new baby, has been imprisoned and beaten by Borgnine, so the ultimate showdown is set. Kristofferson becomes a reluctant hero, can’t stomach the concept of sacrificing one friend for any cause, and pays a high price for his individualism.
Even with all the dumb stuff, Convoy still wasn’t a waste of time, because it added to my Peckinpah tally, and I was curious about his low points and second last movie. Amazingly this was his biggest box office hit, proving that the motivating concept of cashing in on the trucking trend worked, even if it was running on fumes by that point. Convoy works as a wild exploitation flick, and with the decent cast and the visuals, it’s a fun enough novelty, a crazy, cheesy extended music video for the song, an ode to the road.