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It’s full-throttle action when David aids a female trucker on the road for vengeance against the hijackers who took her father’s rig.
After Final Round and 747 the writers of The Incredible Hulk had a pattern–pick a hit movie and reproduce it cheaply while finding a way to add the Hulk into the action. It’s like the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) was just wandering through the Universal Studios backlot, going from movie to movie like a giant green Forrest Gump.
This time the movie in question is Smokey and the Bandit. A smash 1977 hit, Smokey and the Bandit was the latest in a series of trucker films that were a rage in the 70s and early 80s, including Convoy, Breaker! Breaker!, and one of the earliest trucker films, Steven Spielberg’s Duel.
Before Jaws made Steven Spielberg a household name, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind certified the director a hit-maker, he made Duel for Universal Pictures. But by the time this Hulk episode was made both those blockbusters had been released to great fanfare, and Spielberg would be a Hollywood power player with some significant clout.
And, as I learned reading Lou Ferrigno’s autobiography, this episode of The Incredible Hulk made Spielberg angry–and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
As I mentioned in previous reviews, Hulk, like many other TV series around the same time, used footage from movies as cheap stock footage. For Never Give a Trucker an Even Break the Hulk creators went into Universal’s archives and mined Spielberg’s Duel. The producers didn’t only take shots of big rigs from Duel, they took entire action sequences and plot points! As Duel had very specific vehicles and action scenes, items that would be integral to the story of this episode, the writers wrote an entire episode of Hulk around the action from Duel.
Spielberg was not happy with his directorial debut being recycled for a television series, and tried to prevent the show from using his shots. However, due to the contract he signed with Universal he was powerless. Burned by The Incredible Hulk, Spielberg would wield his clout to demand in his future contracts that none of his footage could be recycled in such a manner.
Spielberg may have had his revenge a few years later while making the TV series Amazing Stories episode Remote Control Man. An episode all about TV series come to life, there was a cameo by Hulk (not played by Lou Ferrigno, but a much less muscular double).
But looking at this week’s episode of Hulk, I can see why Spielberg might be upset. I can only imagine Kenneth Johnson, writer for this week’s episode, watching Duel and specifically trying to figure out how much of it he can use in an episode. The amount of reuse goes beyond homage or convenience and almost into piracy!
The episode starts with David (Bill Bixby) walking the streets in Nevada. As the series has not really kept verisimilitude with David’s geography from the end of one episode to the start of the next, I liked seeing him still in Nevada creating stronger ties to the previous week’s The Hulk Breaks Las Vegas. The dialogue even references David having come from Vegas, and the episode starts as most episodes end, with David hitchhiking on the highway, The Lonely Man theme playing.
But now we see what happens after he hits the road. He is picked up by a young, fast talking blond girl. Something seems amiss when she offers David $10 to deliver a “funny birthday card” to her boyfriend at his office. David, ever the trusting soul, agrees happily, seemingly anxious to see the joke himself. Bixby plays this scene horribly, with a stupid grin on his face. It’s worse because we all know David’s being played for a fool, and his complete naiveté in this situation is silly.
It all pays off when the recipient Ted opens the letter and, shocker, its not a funny card but a note that says “I’ll kill you if I get the chance.” Ted and his workers blame David for the note, made worse when he cannot give the name of the blond girl that lied to him, and the blond girl’s car has disappeared.
The men are about to beat David when they’re all distracted by one of their trucks, the iconic rusty, beat-up red truck from Duel, starts driving off. David was a patsy to distract the men while the blond stole their truck! David flees the men and jumps on the moving truck, climbing through the cab window into the passenger seat.
And then we get some terrible dialogue. I think it’s supposed to be quick and clever, the type of dialogue you’d hear in Ocean’s 11 (or Smokey and the Bandit). For example David says “I’m just trying to catch up” and her response is “Yeah, but let’s hope they don’t.”
Through this painful banter we find out the crux of the story. The truck belonged to the girl, who’s name is Joanie, and her father. They were hauling ten-thousand gallons of gasoline when Ted and his goons hijacked the truck and put Joanie’s dad in the hospital. Telling this Joanie spouts more bad dialogue, “I could never figure out who’d want to steal ten-thousand gallons of gas anyway? I mean beer maybe, but gas?”
Ted’s goons disguised the truck (presumably with beat-up red rust paint) but Joanie recognized it and decided to steal it back. David postulates maybe they wanted the truck, not the gas Joanie was hauling. He peers in the back to find the goons had emptied out the gas and filled the tanker truck with “very expensive computer components”. Ted and his goons hijacked a truck full of these random, anonymous computer components, and were planning to use the tanker to smuggle them. Smuggle them where? Sell these computer components to whom? In the 70s “very expensive computer components” would be of use to large corporations like IBM, but unless it was a prototype Apple PC I can’t imagine them having much in the way of street value. You can’t grind them up and snort them, so I fail to see the profit for Ted.
Joanie and David drive along looking for a phone to call the cops (ah the 70s when pay phones were along the sides of the road and no one had heard of “cell phones”), but none is forthcoming.
During all of these scenes Joanie and David are being chased by Ted and his lackey Mike in a red Plymouth (go figure, the car from Duel), and this episode’s bottom-barrel production values get the spotlight. The scenes inside the car or truck are obviously filmed on a rear-projected set. The camera angles, the scenery, nothing about it looks real. But when we get the exterior shots (from Duel) the film grain is different, as is the color processing, and the vehicles are moving quite quickly. The producers don’t even seem to try to make it match. Worse, the entire episode is scored to an upbeat, jaunty western tune that seems right out of Smokey and the Bandit. It’s a total tonal mess.
The action is staged directly from Duel storyboards, using Duel’s film, with the Plymouth using a dirt road to pass the truck and Joanie using the truck to bump the back of the car, making it swerve off the road and hit a guardrail. Duel is a film full of suspense and terror. This episode is an absurd tale full of broad humor. I can see why Spielberg was pissed; imagine taking footage from Fatal Attraction and interspersing it into an episode of Growing Pains and you’d have the same type of effect.
Only ten minutes into the episode I realize I’m in for quite a bumpy ride myself.
Ted and Mike are sloppy and incompetent, searching their Plymouth for a gun that they just can’t find. Is it in the glove box? Is it on the floor? The toolbox in the back seat? It’s a gun in a small car. They find the gun and…it’s not loaded and they have to search the car for bullets. It becomes very clear this episode isn’t going for suspense, it’s going for the lamest form of humor. I cannot believe this farce was written by series creator Kenneth Johnson, who created the melodramatic psychological pilot for this series.
The story continues to plagiarize Duel as the goons have to pull off for gas and find the Plymouth’s radiator hose is in need of repair. Joanie and David pull off at a gas station as well. Still looking for a phone they ask the gas attendant, but his phone isn’t working. Joanie gets gas, and David parts ways with the troublesome blond. He stays at the gas station preferring to take his chances hitchhiking rather than with Joanie and the expensive computer components. Joanie promises to call the police on Ted as soon as she can find a phone, and David starts walking the highway as The Lonely Man theme plays.
Wait, what? The Lonely Man theme? We’re only a half hour into the episode and we haven’t even seen the Hulk yet? This can’t be how it ends.
And, of course, it isn’t.
David wanders up the road to see Joanie’s truck pulled over, Ted and Mike having caught up to the blonde. We don’t see how they stopped her in the big rig, but they have taken Joanie captive and stolen back the truck, leaving their Plymouth unattended in the desert. Ever the hero, David hot wires the car and takes off in pursuit to rescue the girl. He follows them back to where they have Joanie hostage, so David runs off to find a pay phone to call the cops.
Yes, this entire episode has been a hunt for a pay phone in the desert.
But this time David finds one! I have no idea where this oasis of a pay phone was by Ted’s base in the desert, but now halfway through the episode David can finally call the authorities. He puts in his dime to call the operator. No answer! So he calls the number of the pay phone company, but the support woman is less than helpful. She refuses to call the police, and “is not equipped” to connect David to a call. She gives him the number of a police station, but he used his last dime on the unanswered call to the operator.
I’m laughing, but David is getting frustrated. He’s checking the coin return for a stray dime, anything to call the police. He finds a dime and calls the police, but the operator says “please deposit twenty-five cents for the first three minutes.” David is fumbling through change, finding only pennies. Joanie is screaming in the distance, and then we get…
Hulk-Out #1: Yes, I’m not kidding. His lack of a quarter has caused David to Hulk out, screaming the words “I don’t have twenty-five cents!” in his gravely Hulk-transformation voice. The green animated blob takes over David’s face, his eyes go white, and he transforms. The buttons pop off his shirt and I’m thinking if he doesn’t have a quarter there’s no way he can afford new buttons for his shirt, but now the Hulk is here and proceeds to take out David’s anger on the phone booth. Hulk crushes the phone receiver and tears the phone out from the wall, smashing the phone booth in its entirety.
Hey, Hulk, remember Joanie? Want to rescue her?
Once the phone booth is suitably destroyed Hulk breaks through the aluminum wall of Ted’s base. Hulk lifts up one goon with one hand, and uses the other to toss another lackey across the garage. He then lifts up Joanie in his arms and flees.
Another one of Ted’s goons picks up a chain and starts to swing it above his head–the first time Hulk has been attacked by a real weapon other than a gun! I think a good fight may follow, and the goon captures Hulk’s arm with the chain. But he’s apparently throwing the chain from only three feet away as Hulk reaches out with his other hand and throws the goon up to the roof of the building! The goon is able to catch a fingerhold, and Hulk runs off.
But during all this, Ted and Mike have driven off in the truck with the “very expensive computer components”. Joanie takes chase in the red Plymouth (so I know more scenes from Duel are coming!), and Hulk is left there to roar impotently.
I want to say I think Lou looks good in the make-up this episode. With the torn shirt hanging from his shoulders, he is intimidating and after the farce that we’ve been watching on screen his presence is more than welcome. But he has little to do, the fight is too short, and before we know it we’re at a commercial.
Joanie is driving over 80 miles per hour! Still she cannot escape the scenes from Duel as she drives and hides behind an embankment. (At this point can I start calling Joanie “Mann”, the lead character in Spielberg’s film?) Once the truck passes, she drives on and sees David by the side of the road, just post-transformation. Despite his torn clothes Joanie doesn’t connect David to the Hulk. In this exchange I cannot decide which line was funnier, Joanie saying “We have to find a phone!” continuing the endless search for telecommunications, or David searching through his bag for a new shirt saying “I really need to start buying shirts that stretch.”
They drive and see a phone by the side of the road. Joanie pulls off, but the truck is in pursuit, so David gets behind the driver’s seat and the two take off once again.
Banjo music as loud as can be, Mann, er, Joanie and David try to outrun the truck. The truck bumps them, and they pull in front of a train, and now I just wish I was watching Spielberg’s film en toto rather than this rip-off.
We do get some new footage interspersed with Spielberg’s, seeing the car hit some barricades Dukes of Hazzard style but the majority of the external shots are from Duel. As is the plot as the radiator hose of the Plymouth gives out and the car overheats. The car barely makes it to the apogee of the mountain, and then pick up speed as they coast down the other side. This happens near the climax of Duel and leads to an exciting and innovative ending. But in Never Give a Trucker an Even Break it instead ends with David losing control of the car and hitting the side of the mountain. Joanie is knocked out, and Ted and Mike bear the truck down on the car. The stress causes
Hulk-Out #2: In 747 we saw Hulk fly a plane. Now we see him drive a car. Unfortunately this is not filmed nearly as well. Rather than have Bixby in the rear-projected car doing his transformation, they have him on an all-black set with the green glow on his face. Close-ups of shirt arms tearing and Bixby in partial make-up are interspersed with car chase scenes, and it all ends with Hulk, obviously not in a car, holding a steering wheel attached to nothing.
And we never get to see Hulk try to mess with the brakes, or steering. Instead the car just stops, and Hulk knocks the door off its hinges, then throws it aside, also pulling Joanie free from the car.
The banjo music is replaced by the Hulk theme from the pilot intermixed with rapid piano notes to indicate danger. It’s actually not bad but, like this entire episode, uneven.
Hulk pushes down an electrical pole, and using the 40-foot post like a wooden baseball bat he smacks the front of the tuck. He then pushes the Plymouth into the truck, and the two vehicles collide in a fiery explosion. The climax from Duel is shown with the car and truck both going off the side of a cliff, but Johnson must think Duel would have been improved by having the Hulk in it as the scene is now intercut with Hulk standing at the top of the cliff roaring triumphantly. It’s a long drawn-out crash that makes sense in the film, but just seems to pad this episode’s running length.
Before the truck went over the cliff Ted and Mike jumped to safety. But Ted’s leg is broken and Mike is unconscious. Hulk goes to the unconscious, but safe, Joanie who awakens to again see David post-transformation. Joanie never asks what happened to David’s shirt again, but they walk away to go to the cops.
And in the last scene Joanie buys David some new clothes with the reward money she got from turning in Ted, and the shop owner tells Joanie that a reporter named McGee is looking to talk to people who saw the green creature. This, of course, cues David to leave, but Joanie convinces him to stay!
Joanie: David, I’d like to share that reward with you.
David: That’d be nice, but I really have to leave.
Joanie: (suggetively) I’d like to share more than that with you.
(now a porn groove bass funk starts playing)
David: How about lunch?
Joanie: That’s a start. (laughs)
David: (suggestively) Yeah…
And instead of The Lonely Man theme we get a disco version of it, perhaps the “David Gets Some” theme? But it ends with a banjo riff out of Deliverance as credits roll.
And none too soon for my tastes. After each episode being better than the last, this is the first real stinker of the season. There is a reason I’m reviewing an episode of The Incredible Hulk every day and not an episode of Dukes of Hazzard–I don’t really care for Dukes. I don’t like the juvenile humor of Roscoe P. Coltrane and his dog Flash, and I don’t get excited by car chases scored to banjo music. Yet that’s what this episode has in abundance. I’m sure to CBS this served as a great episode to get Hulk watchers to stick around for another hour to watch more car chases on Dukes but for me this episode was miserable. I didn’t find the intentional humor funny, and I found the serious moments unintentionally hilarious.
The only good thing I can say about this episode is that if it was still 1978, and you didn’t see Duel in theaters seven years prior, you could see the best scenes in Never Give a Trucker an Even Break and not even have to pay the $3 for a movie ticket. But now that we have home video I strongly suggest you check out Duel instead of this turkey. I saw it for the first time during my research for this episode, and I can give that a solid recommend.
I understand that people with different tastes than mine, those who still enjoy Dukes of Hazzard and Smokey and the Bandit to this very day, may find something they’re looking for in this episode. These tastes are not mine; being in a comedic truck heist film wasn’t what I wanted to see the Hulk do. I give this episode a strong not recommend.