Contempt kind of did me in for serious movies for a while [witness how In Cold Blood has sat unwatched on my desk for over a month], so the whole idea of a movie starring Mr. T. sounded ideal. And who could have predicted that it would turn out to be so delightful?
We open in space, with a voice saying “Is anybody out there?” Then a large machine moves slowly overhead in what I can only guess is a joke on the opening shot of Star Wars. Suddenly these other cabs, their drivers in masks, come out and try to corner the first cab, and it’s this roller derby kind of thing. Then the dispatcher, the one asking if anyone is out there, has to tell the customer on the line that all their cabs are occupied—playing this game.
Then the credits! Names, Names, NAMES! This is a Peter Gubers-Jon Peters production! It’s written and directed by Joel Schumacher! It stars Adam Baldwin, from the defining movie of my adolescence, My Bodyguard, and who later went on to become a righteous muscle BABE on Angel and Firefly/Serenity! AND Bill Maher! Plus Mr. T! And Gary Busey! Not to mention Irene Cara… AS HERSELF. And music by Giorgio Moroder! This is the defining movie of the late Twentieth Century!
First a short interlude with Mr. T. picking up a couple, and the woman going down on the man in the back of the cab. Now, Mr. T. don’t TAKE no head in the back of his cab, and he kicks the man out and excoriated the woman, a prostitute. “I need the bread!” she says. “Then go get a job in a bakery!” he retorts.
We now meet tender youth Adam Baldwin as Albert Hockenberry, whose dad was in ‘Nam with Harold, the owner of DC Cab, and a righteous blue-collar BEAR. He gives Albert a GRRRR-eat big BEAR HUG that needs to be witnessed [it’s around 9:03], if you like big blue-collar bears. In fact, if you do, you can just go ahead and put this on your list now, because there’s lots more to come.
After meeting Harold’s total bitch JAP wife Myrna, we meet Tyrone, this skanky black dude with lime green foam curlers in his hair. Then the cabbies are menaced by this rival cab company who all wear green nylon jackets, and have the support [i.e. they buy off] the police dude, Mr. Bravo. At this point I have written in my notes: “wall-to-wall hot guys.” Then a black female driver gets ripped off twice by this dude in a ski mask. And, those wondering how acceptable anti-Asian prejudice was in 1981 need only consult the below picture:
The homoeroticism continues as Albert and Harold get drunk and dance! Not with each other, just around the house. There are a lot of mentions of the lingering pain of Vietnam. Myrna comes home and throws a SHIT FIT that the guys didn’t save her a beer, then refuses to let Harold go to the store to get her more, then says she’s going herself—despite the hard day he’s had and how the only thing she wants is one beer before going to bed—then says she wouldn't drink a beer NOW if Harold brought the Clydesdale horses [from the old Budweiser commercial] themselves! It’s funny she should mention Clydesdale horses, because during this scene I am looking at Harold’s body and thinking that is exactly what he looks like. Ladies and gentleman, LOOK. AT. THAT. BODY. [below]. This happens at around 14 minutes, and if you dig the big bears, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Jeeeeeesus Christ. Then Harold insists that Albert stay with them, and shows him the guest bed where he has “slept LOTS of times,” i.e. Myrna frequently throws him out and refuses sex. He also shows Albert his flamethrower. We’ll circle back to the homo subtext of all this. By the way, a repeated line throughout the movie is "It's tough to be a man."
So the deal is that Albert—for some reason—is DYING to become a cab driver. So he rides with the different cabbies all day, which allows us to see a bunch of cabbie vignettes, which is what this movie really consists of. First a woman gets in and says she’s a topless dancer and needs to get to the club NOW. She takes off her top and the straight dudes out there get some adequate boobie coverage, then stiffs [and, I’m sure, stiffens] the driver and runs inside. He sends Albert in after her, and the straight viewers are rewarded with the sight of about 40 topless women running around [you see, it’s not all about muscle bears] before he gets thrown out on his ass. Okay, enough tits, back to the muscle bears. Albert goes for a ride between the two HUGE BEARDED BODYBUILDER TWINS who tell him a scary story before grinding him between them in a MASSIVE BEAR SANDWICH! It’s clear now that my degree was a waste and I should instead have tried to be a cab driver.
Okay, strap yourselves in for this one: The guys go to a male strip club just as it is closing. Albert sees into the club and to the male dancers on stage, and, given the editing, it appears as though he is gazing with wondrous fascination at the male dancers. One of the guys in the crowd derides the dancers as “faggots.” Meanwhile we are hearing a song by the unending splendor of Stephanie Mills. Then, show over, the women stream out as one to find the cabbies—including our two bulging muscle bears—gyrating on the hoods of their cabs. Crazed with lust, they pile into the cars with the guys, leaving poor Albert alone, presumably to go home and whack off while sniffing Harold’s pungent underwear. At least that’s what I’d do.
So Albert raps with Bill Maher, who dropped out of law school and is an amateur musician and has become a cynical loser. He talks about dealing with “the big fear” of the yawning emptiness of life, and around this time you may be thinking “Wow, there is a LOT of existential talk for a zany movie about a wacky cab company that employs Mr. T.” And it’s true. Then Albert gazes at this girl in a diner while this song “Single Hearts,” which surely is subtitled “Love Theme from DC Cab,” plays on the soundtrack. Then Mr. T., his character named Uncle Samson, is furious that his young niece is spotted in the car of the local notorious pimp! Then there is a RACIALLY CHARGED [I’m actually not being ironic in this rare case] scene where Tyrone gets pissed at Albert, and removes his hair with the lime green foam curlers and reveals that this is all a DUMB “BLACK PERSON” ACT [they use a different word] to fool others, because that is what they EXPECT! Something bad happened way back when and he dropped out of college and now lives on welfare and “strains the system” as a way of getting back at the man! Then there’s a truly terrifying near-collision with a train. Then Ophelia, the woman who keeps getting mugged, has an emotional scene where she’s about to quit and Harold talks her out of it. The thing is, there are real, raw emotions here, and the actors play it straight and really give dramatic performances, not “oh, this is all a silly comedy” performances.
So now it’s an hour into a 90-minute movie, and you know what that means: it’s time for some conflict, and a larger struggle to emerge so that we can feel like we watched one story, not just a series of cabbie vignettes. There is some fuss about a lost priceless violin, and the company is given a huge reward, which Harold promises to share with the cabbies [over Myrna’s strong objections], but he asks that they re-invest in the cab company and they’ll take it to the next level and elevate all of them. But! Myrna TAKES the money and is going to split! The pro-male, anti-female vibe continues as there is snide talk about how it is “her legal right” to take the money since her husband earned it. Curse the corrupt system! Then Albert gives a rousing speech about how they should all believe in the company and invest in themselves and really turn it around. Clearly the best course of action is that they all become male strippers, and the last half-hour can be composed of all their shows, but no, they’re going to take the boring old route of cleaning up their cabs and providing superior customer service.
SPOILERS > > >
So they all fix up and paint the cab company and revamp the cars and buy shiny yellow nylon jackets, and it seems that things are looking up for DC Cab! But then—tragedy! There’s a kidnapping of some ambassadors kids and Albert happens to be on the scene, and he gets kidnapped too! Then everyone is blaming him for the kidnapping! And the cab company is shut down! And Ophelia is once more on the verge of defecting to the other cab company because “Dreams just aren’t for people like us.” Could this spell the end for DC Cab?
What do you think? First we find out that Myrna is sleeping with police dude Bravo, so apparently her legal claims to Harold’s money are moot. Then there’s a lot of madcap stuff—a lot a little TOO madcap for my taste—then everyone’s about to give up… but not Mr.T! He makes a big speech, in his staccato, declamatory voice: “I owe Albert for helping me find a thing I never had before! Like pride! And self-respect!” As he says this he is revealed to be standing before the Lincoln Memorial, which he turns and salutes before going on his way. Mucho wackiness ensues, including a van that apparently mysteriously levitates to emerge through the center of a drive-in movie screen, and a 30-second appearance by Irene Cara as herself, and the cab company is saved.
< < < SPOILERS END
So the wacky final 30 minutes is a big let-down, but then I remind myself of my own first two-thirds theory, which is that all of the interesting and subversive content of a movie is up front, and the last third is often a big come-down because then they have to wrap up the storyline and return everything to normal. Here, during the first hour, there is a lot of surprisingly raw emotion about being a Vietnam vet, about being black, about life in the lower classes, stuff like that, and if we have to endure a final 30 minutes where everything gets really conventional, and a bit boring, well that’s par for the course.
I was sure Mr. T would be the central figure here, but it really is an ensemble piece and he’s just one of the ensemble. There is the minor homo subtext—Harold’s wife no longer sleeps with him and doesn’t like him, and here comes this surrogate son who does like him and thinks he’s great, and all of this takes place where manhood is venerated [“It’s tough to be a man,”] and male camaraderie celebrated, but it’s more just pepper on top than a real cohesive statement. If anything, the real villains here are white women [Myrna seems Jewish but it is never explicitly stated] who are shrill harpies who just want money. But overall it’s just kind of a fun, genial movie that’s out to show you a good time and add an unsuspected level of depth. The DVD doesn’t have so much as a menu, by the way.