Written by: Straw Weisman
Directed by: Robert A. Endelson
Starring: Robert Judd, William Sanderson, and Lela Small
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďWhy, you poor white trash! If it wasn't for that gun, you'd be a yellow-streaked bum!"
While the exploitation circuit was rooted in the 60s, the genre truly sprang to life in the 70s as filmmakers became increasingly provocative. Many seemed to be engaged in an unspoken competition to not only push the envelope but to also rip it up, set it on fire, and maybe even piss on it. Such gamesmanship resulted in a plethora of notorious films whose deplorability is considered to be a boon; while some of these films now feel like obvious, juvenile relics, others, such as Wes Cravenís The Last House on the Left, remain potent documents of post-Vietnam discontent, something many of its various imitators often missed. Hailed as possibly ďthe least politically incorrect film ever seen in American theaters,Ē Fight for Your Life is one of that filmís most infamous riffs that put a Blaxploitation variation on the theme, a race-baiting tactic that apparently made 42nd Street even more riotous than usual when it screened.
The film opens with the familiar, jailbreak starting point when a trio of fugitives escape custody during a transfer. Their ringleader, Jesse Lee Kane (William Sanderson), decides the best course of action is to hop the border into Canada, so the three embark on a trail of destruction along the way. Eventually, their travels land them in a small town where a liquor store robbery goes horribly wrong, which forces them to take a black family hostage within the confines of their own home. Patriarch Ted Turner (Robert Judd) is a pacifist preacher whose convictions are set to endure a brutal, harrowing test as Kane unleashes a lifetimeís worth of racist vitriol upon the family.
Fight for Your Life certainly lives up to its infamy in terms of content and thoroughly plays the race card like a drum. By the end of the film, Sanderson has emptied the tank of pretty much every conceivable racial epithet imaginable and treats his captives like subhuman dirt. His Kane is one of the most despicable characters to ever grace a screen and insures that Fight for Your Life pushes the limits anytime his southern drawl pollutes the proceedings. However, his character is also drawn as such as hicksploitation character that it speaks to the silly underbelly of many exploitation films; for example, I Spit on Your Grave is sort of vile in theory, but itís also difficult to take seriously due to its antagonistsí cartoonish portrayal. The film walks this fine line pretty well, as the racist overtures are often genuinely disturbing (or, in the least, cringe inducing); however, it sometimes feels a bit overcooked and obvious (but, then again, thereís a reason this is called the exploitation genreóits films donít wear their hearts on their sleeve so much as they rip them out and lay them bare for audiences).
The film continually treads the line between seriousness and silliness; for example, it features a disturbing murder scene whose effectiveness is undercut by some obvious and shoddy effects work. As it continues to tick off the Last House beats, it starts to feel a little bit obligatory, at least until the film reaches its climax. Itís at this point that it almost feels disingenuous to call this a simple Last House riff (that one of its various alternate titles wasnít Black House on the Left is sort of astounding, though). While the familyís revenge and Turnerís eventual moral quandary are predicated by formula, thereís an interesting twist thrown in during the climax involving Lt. Reilly (David Cargill), a detective who feels like he walked right out of a 40s gumshoe flick. He also has strong convictions about justice and is insistent on busting all criminals and letting the courts sort it out. Without spoiling too much, Iíll say that the film finds a clever way to exploit this dilemma and tie it into the familyís eventual revenge.
It also proceeds to squander the opportunity, unfortunately, and the film relents to reveling in violence in a manner that betrays the disturbing center of not only Last House on the Left but also its classier predecessor, Straw Dogs. Thereís little room for ambiguity or even condemnation since Fight for Your Life resorts to glorifying violence to tap into and exploit black rage. Because of its thin ambitions, it can hardly be considered an incisive or insightful look at 70s race relations; more than anything, it takes the subtext of urban vigilante films like Death Wish, reverses the racial dynamics, and makes it the outrageous, bloody (and even urinary) text. Perhaps surprisingly, the film isnít extremely graphic; while it is soaked in the same general grime and grit as Last House and its ilk, much of the actual violence is saved for concentrated bursts.
In that respect, Fight for Your Life just feels dirty at times and often succeeds in causing discomfort. More than anything, though, it aims low by preaching to the choir and providing some sort of catharsis that I Spit on Your Grave offers in terms of allowing horrible things to happen to horrible people who deserve it. While the revenge isnít as graphically satisfying as that filmís, Fight for Your Life is arguably more accomplished as a whole since the journey towards the climax is a bit more memorable. Not only does Sanderson provide one of the most incredibly deplorable characters youíll ever encounter in a film, but heís joined by a couple of serviceable (and surprisingly ethnic) goons in Daniel Faraldo and Peter Yoshida, both of whom have their own appalling moments to shine. The Turner family also make for solid antagonists; Judd infuses Ted with likeable dignity, while Reggie Rock Blythewood plays the precocious and resourceful son. The real standout, however, is Lela Small as the wheelchair bound Grandma Turner, a kooky old hoot who dishes her own verbal barrage on Kane; once youíve seen her question her captorís manhood, itís hard to see Fight for Your Life as anything more but silly, race-baiting exploitation (thereís even a completely extraneous interracial sex scene whose sensuality would have served to push the buttons of any racists who couldnít resist seeing the film for themselves).
In the annuls of its various sub-genres, Fight for Your Life can crow alongside its infamous brethren, if only because of its completely unflinching racist overtones. Itís not exactly an enjoyable film to watch, but it is perhaps easier to stomach since it does know how to be pretty silly at times. If nothing else, itís an incredible, almost unbelievable snapshot of post-Civil Rights racism; it might be a little cartoonish at times, but the ugliness guiding Kaneís hatred for blacks was (and still is) very real. Unsurprisingly, Fight for Your Life had a tough time on home video formats throughout the years; the UK predictably banned it as a Nasty, and edited versions found their way to store shelves in other countries, which meant it was difficult to see in all of its uncut glory until Blue Undergroundís DVD release. The disc is now nearly a decade old, but it holds up well; the transfer is acceptably grainy and grungy, while the mono soundtrack isnít too terrible hollow sounding. Writer Straw Weisman and DP Lloyd Freidus provided a commentary, which is joined by the usual promotional material (TV spots, a trailer, posters, and stills) to round out the special features. Given both its infamy and its bizarre entertainment factor (which often comes in spite of itself), Fight for Your Life is indeed an irresponsible, absurd sleazefest that absolutely must be seen. Buy it!
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