Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Cruella coming to theaters and Disney+, we’re looking at some of our favorite extravagant and over-the-top villains from film history.
We lost a real one this year when Yaphet Kotto died in March at the age of 81. Kotto was a welcome, commanding presence in anything he appeared in, and he built a enviable body of work: Blue Collar, Alien, The Running Man, Midnight Run, and, of course, Homicide: Life On The Street, where he played Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello for seven seasons. Among the earlier highlights of his long career was his turn as villainous pimp Harvard Blue in the Blaxploitation flick Truck Turner. Much like Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man, Kotto’s much-discussed antagonist doesn’t make an entrance until halfway through the movie. But it’s quite an entrance: stepping out of a stretch Mercedes-Benz limo at a burial, rocking a fly-ass fur-lapeled white coat, just to spit in the face of the dead rival pimp who’s being buried, before returning to his car.
One of many Shaft knockoffs to hit theaters in the early ’70s, Turner was designed as a vehicle for Isaac Hayes, the man who provided the Oscar-winning soundtrack for the iconic private dick. Unlike Shaft, Hayes’ hero, Mac “Truck” Turner, isn’t cool and sexy. (He is a bad mother, though!) He’s a wisecracking, Coors-swilling, ex-football player-turned-skip tracer who tracks down lowlifes who jump bail. Truck spends most of the first half of his movie slapping fives and cracking jokes with his sidekick, Jerry (Alan Weeks), as they hunt down criminals all over Los Angeles. Amusingly janky, the film includes a lengthy car chase you can tell was filmed early in the morning, so director Jonathan Kaplan could have the streets all to himself.
Technically, Kotto’s Blue isn’t the big bad. That honor goes to Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura herself, getting her Eartha Kitt on), a vengeful madam who puts a bounty on Turner’s head for murdering her pimp boyfriend. Blue takes on the job, bringing in an “insurance company” full of hit men (one of them is named after beloved director Joe Dante, who Kaplan had worked with under legendary B-picture producer Roger Corman). Of course, these men are no match for Turner, who occasionally goes after foolish thugs shirtless and wearing a shoulder holster for his trusty .44 Magnum.
Honestly, Turner doesn’t get serious until Kotto shows up. Much like when he took on the bad guy role in Live And Let Die (a.k.a. the 007 movie where James Bond discovers Black people), Kotto plays Blue as a no-nonsense fella who walks softly and carries a big stick (or, in this case, a pimp cane). Kotto allegedly took on the role because he was going through a divorce and needed the money, but he nonetheless gives it his all, providing some convincing, sharp-dressed menace to a movie where everyone else on screen (Hayes, especially) is clearly half-assing it. Kotto also delivers—spoiler alert—one very dramatic death scene. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in a remembrance of Kotto, “It’s a seven-course meal of grandiosity, a demise worthy of James Cagney or Al Pacino. He limps, staggers, falls, gets back up and stumbles all the way out into the street and tries to get behind the wheel of a car and drive away. The entire time you get the sense of a man coming to terms with the fact that he’s been beaten, that this is truly the end. You can see it by looking into Kotto’s eyes.” It’s a spectacular reminder that the man always understood the assignment.