*½/**** Image A Sound B Extras B+
starring William Sanderson, Robert Judd, Reginald Bythewood, Lela Small
screenplay by Straw Weisman
directed by Robert A. Endelson
by Bill Chambers The package containing Fight for Your Life drew me towards it the way a pie cooling on the windowsill draws fugitives from chain gangs. Something I hate about myself is my susceptibility to ironic temptation: Here was this DVD with one third of "Newhart"'s Larry, Darryl, and Darryl having a barechested brawl with a Famous Amos look-alike on the cover, and like a not-so-metaphorical rat to cheese, I had to spin it immediately. Further patronizing me was a pull quote from All Movie Guide declaring Fight for Your Life "the least politically correct movie ever seen in American theaters." Coupled with my foreknowledge of the film's ongoing ban in the United Kingdom, why, that's "I gots ta know" territory. The film was now in the challenging position of having to meet a set of lopsided expectations: If it turned out to be anything less than transcendent schlock, I'd feel cheated.
In a dinner scene that predates The Jerk, the patriarch (Robert Judd) of a middle-class black family lectures his kinfolk on the basic precariousness of white people. He looks paranoid, of course, until a trio of escaped convicts led by the Caucasian Kane (William Sanderson) takes his family hostage. This is, for starters, one of those movies in which the truck delivering these felons to prison overturns, facilitating a clean break for them, yet they use this newfound freedom to broadcast their criminality to people who'd've been none the wiser. All three of them belong in "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts, though that's hardly something the filmmakers don't realize; the real issue is the pointlessness of the troika being jailbirds in the first place, which is dramaturgy straight out of a Dick Tracy serial ("Be on the lookout for..."). Sadism--dwelt upon in Fight for Your Life--seems somehow specious coming from characters on the lam, and it may be why the picture never strikes the nerve that the later If I Die Before I Wake or the granddaddy of the torment genre, Salo, do: the aggressors in those movies aren't on borrowed time. Well, we all are, but you know what I mean.
Written by a man named Straw, Fight for Your Life is the Jeff Foxworthy routine from Hell. Kane is not white trash, he's a white biohazard, although Sanderson, an actor with terrifically sad eyes who gave one of the two performances that humanized Blade Runner, sounds curiously convictionless as he rattles off a stream of bigoted invective (for what it's worth, I laughed at "Martin Luther Coon," but only because I never imagined hearing something so asinine), and it doesn't help that Kane's partners in crime are a seemingly tolerance-breeding Chicano (Dan Faraldo, in full Piñero regalia) and Asian (Peter Yoshida, treading on Sammo Hung's turf as a fat mute who enjoys scaring women and clobbering little boys). The purported impropriety of the least politically correct movie ever seen in American theatres thus offset, we hope the film is just a late-bloomer in terms of living up to the potent animalism of its obvious progenitors (the home-invasion pictures Straw Dogs and The Desperate Hours), but director Robert A. Endelson scuttles through the stuff that always resonates from these movies: Poor Father's retribution, immortalized on that glorious DVD cover, is a blink-and-miss detail instead of a full-fledged set-piece. This on the heels of Dad being forced to step and fetch it by a drunken Kane for extended periods, although it's meaningless to level charges of racism. Let me repeat: written by a man named Straw.
Blue Underground's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is problematically excellent. Instead of bearing that low-budget grime that buys a grindhouse film the benefit of the doubt, Fight for Your Life, polished to a disarming shine from the original negative, resembles a production that squandered its resources of a competent cinematographer (Lloyd Friedus) and expert post-production facilities. I'm reminded of the rumour that John Landis blew a gasket when he saw how beautiful the first master for the Animal House DVD looked and ordered telecine operators to downgrade the image--which is not to discount the bruises left on this presentation by the occasional blow-up grainy insert, and the 2.0 mono track is certainly nothing special.
As this title is one of Blue Underground president Bill Lustig's personal faves, the sometime-director joins Straw (who does a mean (as in uncanny) Sanderson impersonation) and Friedus in a convivial feature-length commentary, the first topic of which is the yakker's absence of Endelson and Sanderson, both of whom bowed out because they're now ashamed of Fight for Your Life's racist language.* Lustig made me feel guilty for not sharing his infectious--though never quite validated--enthusiasm for the picture, but the true benefit of his presence is that, as a fan and fellow filmmaker, his line of inquiry is refreshingly specific. ("Is that a fog filter?" "Is that a dummy?") "White" and "black" trailers (the pitches aren't radically different, save the latter's title of Stayin' Alive) and TV spots, an extensive publicity gallery, and a bizarre "teaser" (a freeze-frame of Judd superimposed with the film's title that runs 30 agonizing seconds) round out the disc. Originally published: February 26, 2004.
*Not long after publishing this review, I received an e-mail from director Robert A. Endelson that at the time seemed like quite a coup, considering not even Blue Underground could get him to leave a comment on the record. I've reprinted the entirety of his message below.
"Read your review of Fight for Your Life. I laughed out loud when I read "...and expert post-production facilities." FYI, they were a rented Moviola located under my loftbed where I spent several months. The good part was that when I was tired, I just climbed the ladder into bed. By the way, I am not ashamed of the film, I just think that I have nothing to add to all the gibberish about the film and its origins.
Robert A. Endelson,
director, Fight for Your Life"