Hi, Burl here! You know, one of my all-time favourite pictures is Malibu Beach, and I’ll tell you why: you don’t watch Malibu Beach, you live it, or at least you live in it for a while! It brings you into its world more than any other movie I can think of; and if its world isn’t terribly exciting or eventful, well, ha ha, might as well go for a Coke! It’s a time machine full of attractive people, alluring locations, bad-but-good clothes and terrible music; but it’s a temporary time machine whose process of return is sudden, vicious and unsympathetic! When the movie’s over, that’s it – you’re back in your own chilly, cynical, elderly and mid-continental world! It’s devastating and horrible every single time!
An emotional corrective may possibly be found in Mag Wheels, however – the dark cousin to Malibu Beach, released in the same year, 1978! (The Pom Pom Girls has some real similarities too!) The movie begins as so many of these movies do: with a group of bronzed California striplings cavorting in the surf with their girlfriends! It rapidly becomes apparent, however, that in marked contrast to the reasonably likeable ciphers of Malibu Beach, the teens here have no particular personality traits beyond being total jerks! The only remotely tolerable character is Anita, the new girl in town, and she turns out to be a spineless sap with no free will and a victim complex!
It is this dynamic – the perpetual victim loosed in a beachy jungle of rapacious soda jerks – that powers the film, along with an escalating rivalry between boogie van-driving dudes and custom pick-up-driving chicks! Anita, subjected to the predatory wooings of van-driving jock Steve, is caught in the middle! There are van-vs.-truck races, pillow fights and riverbank parties, and finally Steve’s highly irritable girlfriend Donna realizes she’s got a perky, if oblivious, romantic rival! A nefarious plan is hatched, ha ha! Donna sets up a drug deal, narcs on it and has Steve busted, and then blames Anita for the whole thing! There’s a Road Warrior-style chase, and Anita and Jill, the tough leader of the truck girls, are nearly revenge-raped by all the van jerks! The trucker girls ride to the rescue, and luckily one of them is Asian, so is naturally able to kung-fu kick the would-be rapists into submission and cowardly flight!
There’s a big climax with a suspenseful “drag out” between the trucks and the vans! Desperate to stop the contest, which she’s been informed is all her fault for almost getting herself raped, Anita drives her father’s station wagon over a cliff like some kind of Thelma or Louise in training! This seems, on first blush, a tactical misfire, but it has the desired effect! Steve jumps from his van, scrabbles down the hill and drags Anita out of the smashed vehicle! He cradles her lolling head in his arms, then shouts “She’s alive!” to the worried fun-truckers above! They cheer, and the film freezes on a shot of a dazed and injured-looking Anita as the theme song plays and the credits roll!
It’s full of a Sartrean hell’s worth of jerky people, ha ha, but Mag Wheels has some real charms! It seems to take place in a world entirely made up of customized cars (explicable by the presence of The King of the Kustomizers, George Barris, as one of the film’s producers); the rivalry between the trucks and the vans is a nice touch, and the drag-out makes for a refreshing variation on the standard chicken race! On the other hand, the behaviour of many of the characters is totally inexplicable, especially that of our lead, Anita! Working as a waitress at “The Boogie Bowl,” she’s sexually assaulted by her boss, and yet returns to work the next day without complaint! She’s constantly accused of things she hasn’t done, yet never stands up for herself! She’s attacked by Steve and his van goons, but doesn’t even think of going to the police, then later defends the clearly irredeemable Steve as “not that bad!”
Sure, the world was a different place then, with a moral code that, from a 21st century perspective, seems almost alien! Even taking this into account, Steve’s moronic cruelty and Anita’s willingness to take it make for a decidedly frustrating viewing experience! Only Jill, the tough girl, helps leaven it to a tolerable height, with her insistence that Steve’s behaviour is unforgivable and he must be killed; or, in lighter moments, with lines like “I’m Jill. Fly me!” Ha ha, it’s all a bit bewildering, but I’m nevertheless willing to award Mag Wheels two Buckalews!