The 1981 Movie King of the Mountain Is Full of Refreshingly Real Car Action
Refreshingly real action, period-correct car culture, and terrible dialogue make this a must-watch.
We car dorks don’t have that big a library of car-related cinema to enjoy. There have been a couple of solid films over the past 60 years for sure, but the majority are far from blockbusters. King of the Mountain is, well, no exception to this. But what it lacks in some aspects it charms in other ways, especially when it comes down to realism, period-correct car culture, and the sacred practice of car spotting in films. It sort of feels like refreshing antithesis to the Fast franchise, partially due to its age, but also due to its story and complete lack of modern CGI.
King of the Mountain is a 1981 action drama starring Harry Hamlin, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Seymour Cassel, and, most significantly, Dennis Hopper. If those names don’t sound too familiar, it’s not just you. While most of the cast has more than a few titles to their names, they haven’t exactly been superstars. Besides Dennis Hopper, of course. Though, fun fact: This was the follow-up role for Deborah Van Valkenburgh, who made her debut in the cult classic action thriller The Warriors.
What’s this film got to do with action dramas like The Fast And The Furious? Or rather, what makes it different? They have a lot of differences, but also some fun common themes. Both are historically significant for their respective eras, for one thing. And of course, specifically, the stories of both revolve around an underground street racing culture that was loosely based on a real scene.
If You’ve Never Seen It…
The basic story line is the main character, Steve, is known as the King of the Mountain, or, the fastest guy in Los Angeles’ illegal street racing scene, specifically on the city’s twisty and dangerous Mulholland Drive. That actually used to be a thing in real life – the real “Steve” was a 26-year-old guy named Chris Banning in the early ’80s according to the LA Times. Racing up there really was common, at least when it was still smooth and not full of celebrity home tour vans.
Back to the movie: Steve (the character)’s good friends who he’s grown up doing car hijinks with are also trying to make a name for themselves in the music industry, which causes some mild strife at one point. While he lives for the thrills on Mulholland, he also wants to settle down with a nice lady and chill out.
His day job is wrenching on Porsches at a shop in what looks like the Valley, which is where Dennis Hopper also works. Dennis Hopper plays Cal, who was previously King of the Mountain. He crashed out and nearly died many years prior, and is now a cagey older man who drinks a lot and talks like life is one long slam poetry session.
There’s some significant symbolism that revolves around Cal and an old stopwatch he uses; he secretly times Steve’s runs on Mulholland, as if he’s living vicariously through Steve. Though at the end of the film, while Cal is trying to chase down and reclaim his former glory against Steve, shit bodes very poorly for him, and he ends up meeting his fiery demise off the side of the mountain. Steve discovers the stopwatch sitting on the mountain’s edge, and clicks it to stop. There’s a firm message of street racing, and the ego that comes along with it, is bad, that permeates through the camera work and Steve’s facial expression as the credits roll.
Yep, it’s as wild as it sounds. And yeah, it’s not exactly a simple plot line like Fast/Furious. But it’s entertaining in several ways for sure, and why it was worth my purchasing of it for just $5.99 on YouTube.
Great Car Casting
Some really great hardware makes an appearance in this film. Like F/F of an older era. Steve drives a prepped Porsche Speedster (the actual movie car was a Beetle kit car, but whatever who cares), Cal drives a rat-rod C2 Corvette coupe, Steve’s roommates pilot a Jag XK-E and (I think) Ford Mustang, and there’s a ton of great stuff elsewhere. There’s a Dodge Super Bee, various forms of GM F-Body, a Porsche RSR, Ferrari 308 GTS, Citroen DS 19, and so much more. The car spotting really is top-tier. There’s also a scene in the Porsche shop where a Porsche race engine with tennis balls in the velocity stacks sits prominently in the frame; hell yes. The film goes out of its way to put ’70s and early ’80s car culture on display, which really adds to its overall appeal.
Plus, the exhaust tracking is actually really good. This might not seem like that big of a deal, but between Black Moon Rising making a Dodge Daytona sound like a foxbody Mustang, and Fast and Furious making an FD RX-7 sound like a BMW, this is something that’s often incredibly inaccurate in mainstream films about car culture. King of the Mountain‘s Porsche Speedster indeed sounds like a tuned air-cooled engine, and the Corvette has an obnoxious, hell-raising roar, as one could only hope.
The driving action is really good, too, especially for its obviously-small budget. You can tell that the cinematographer did their homework, as did the writers Leigh Chapman and H.R. Christian. The onboard and stunt-driven camera work is all-around great. It’s all real action, too; the opposite of Dominic Toretto jumping from the hood of a car mid-air, and pulling Leti out of harm’s way in Fast 6. Or was it 7? Anyway, it lacks any beyond-rudimentary special effects, which is very much a good thing. These are real cars being wheeled by real drivers on SoCal’s twisty mountain roads, which is especially commendable considering its era. They aren’t driving on modern-day, sub-200TW track tires and 3-way adjustable coilovers; this is early 80s tech being wheeled to the fullest.
Like F/F, it takes place in the grand city of Los Angeles. Anyone who’s a fan of LA film history would dig this film for its shooting locations alone. The hills, Mulholland, scenes on the Sunset Strip, including Carney’s, some street scenes in Beverly Hills, and more. If you’re like me, where you’ve watched Los Angeles Plays Itself at least three-dozen times, you’ll get a kick out of King of the Mountain for its filming locations alone.
It’s Cringey, but in a Fun Way
The dialogue, pretty much regardless of who’s speaking, is often cringe-inducing through the whole movie. While the interactions between Steve and his friends help form what little character development there is, my god, it is bad.
There is, however, some gold in its dialogue. There are so many quotable Hopper lines in KOTM. I wish people would quote “time is speed! Speed is time!” and “you wanna play footsie with fate?!” just as much as they’d quote “Heineken?! Fuck that shit! Pabst! Blue! Ribbon!”
It seems like they kept character development short due to budget constraints. It makes sense, this film’s budget was a paltry $2,000,000 (it ended up making $1,791,147 at the box office according to IMDB, oof). By comparison, another cult-favorite that debuted in 1981 and possessed absolutely no fancy action camera work, Porky’s, had a budget of $2,500,000 (and made $7.6 million its opening weekend, extra oof).
I’m guessing that when KOTM‘s producers found out there was a little extra dough left in the budget as they began filming, they proceeded to toss in some filler that could pass for character development. Like the sandwich-eating scene at the halfway mark, or a singing bit that lasted way too long at the 53:04-mark.
You can really tell this filmed needed filler, regardless of budget; it’s only 90 minutes with credits. I wonder if someone suggested they build up and complicate the whole making-it-in-the-music-industry aspect of the plot, because otherwise the film wouldn’t have lasted longer than an episode of Columbo.
Refreshingly, the original soundtrack is a general banger, which is probably due to its composer having some chops. It’s very much of its era, but not in a bad way. The most-occurring song on the soundtrack, Dangerous Strangers, has a great beat, but holy shit does it get stuck in one’s head. Also, the corniest integration in human history of Styx’s Renegade occurs within this film’s frames.
Go Ahead, Hit That Rent Button
All-in-all, it’s a pretty terrible film… but in the most entertaining ways. Its lack of character development and dialogue are cringey. But it has some very nice camera work with lots of honest-to-goodness, real action. Kind of like the original Fast and the Furious compared to the rest of the franchise.
Well, except for Fast‘s bizarre first drag racing scene that’s chocked full of CGI, and the giant spotlight illuminating Prairie Ave. in Hawthorne, CA where it was filmed (watch it again, you’ll notice).
Like The Fast and the Furious, King of the Mountain has a lot of terrible-yet-entertaining charm, and both films are very culturally-relevant to tuning and illegal racing culture. They’re great jump-off points if one wanted to learn more about their respective eras, cultures, cars, etc. Perhaps they’re filed away in the same cabinet in the Library of Congress? So yeah, maybe these two films do indeed have a bunch in common. But King of the Mountain is still more antithesis; more real action, more real exhaust tone, and just a more refreshingly-simple approach to film making.
Did they ever put this film on Laser Disc? If so, I want it framed on my wall for sure.