Few things sell in cinema quite as well as the underdog story. You take a relateable everyman with little or no prospects, put him toe-to-toe with some type of nefarious adversary who holds all of the cards, and pray like hell that the little guy kicks some ass. This narrative device, and the typical pathos lying within, can take the form of a sports drama such as Rocky, the tribulations of dealing with older bullies in coming-of-age tales like Stand By Me and Three O’Clock High, or the battle of hard-working, kicked-down folks against a giant, corrupt force in the form of a law firm, a corner-cutting pharmaceutical company, or a union. It is the third example that drives this authentic, downbeat drama that is often funny but mostly a stark examination of the ramifications of taking on a Goliath when you haven’t got a stone to your name.
Zeke Brown, Jerry Bartowski & Smokey James (played by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel & Yaphet Kotto, respectively) are three best friends who all work as grunts at the same car manufacturing plant in the Detroit Rust Belt, and their end of the stick couldn’t be any shittier. Their shop steward is an officious, saturnine pest, the IRS gouge a ridiculous amount of their paycheck every week, the vending machines don’t work, and Zeke’s locker keeps lacerating his hand every time he attempts to open it. As a sweetener, their labour union couldn’t give two shits about any of it. The only thing that imbues them with a lick of motivation to get up every day are the nights that the three of them congregate at Smokey’s shag-pad to indulge in wild parties consisting of liquor, loose women and dope (the scenes where Zeke & Jerry try to quell the suspicions of their wives provide some intelligently executed comic relief). Outside of that, professional and personal life is an expensive and laborious headache.
The constant stress and resentment on the trio’s shoulders culminates in a foolhardy scheme to hit the union right where it hurts, breaking into their headquarters in the small hours and looting their primary safe. The anticipation of a reasonable score is there, but the predominant motivation is an arguably righteous spite, the desire to see the big dogs up shit creek for a change. The haul is a measly few hundred dollars, but the additional contents of the safe give the threesome bigger ideas: a ledger revealing the union’s Mafia-backed loan sharking operation, ripe for a spot of blackmail and a potentially enormous payoff. Unfortunately, our heroes are not as cut out for this line of work as they’d like to think, and the union are not as stupid as they’d previously hoped…
With Jack Nitzsche & Captain Beefheart’s ‘Hard Workin’ Man’ as its central motif, the film is a realistically hardcore depiction of working-class toil, opening with the song’s hammer-to-steel percussion as the camera pans over the plant’s employees, frowning and sweating as they assemble automobiles under the oppressive heat of welding torches and lift parts that might as well weigh a ton, all against a background cacophony of doors, trunks and hoods being drilled into place. It’s a perfect illustration of how these men are considered by their immediate management, their union and general society to be merely part and parcel of an assembly line, not individual human beings with families, loves, hates, fears and aspirations. The American Dream is something that people in fancy attire talk about at soirees, it isn’t for the likes of these men.
I recall watching this with a friend one time who made the very canny observation that the film plays like something of a spiritual adaptation of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. Like that novel, it also features savvy, downtrodden characters who are privy to how hard they are being screwed by the system and attempt to take their oppressors head-on and convince their peers that it is in their best interest to do the same, tragically unaware that the system is both a master manipulator and, when it needs to be, an openly ferocious adversary. It will shine a light of doubt on the proclamations of its critics, and those on the fence will either be seduced with offers of advancement and better remuneration, or threatened with termination of employment, reputation destruction, or worse.
There is a fitting amount of levity peppered throughout the film, mainly down to Pryor’s excellent utility of his comedic persona in a straight role and the general camaraderie of the three leads, but for the most part, it is serious and realistic in its handling of the themes of union corruption, racial disparities, life in working-class enclaves and the inevitabilities of pissing off a tiger when you’re a mere antelope. The manner in which the bond of the three friends is tested makes for sad and sobering viewing, driving home the point that underestimating the machine is always ill-advised. Those at the top are that powerful for a reason.
A riveting, funny, cruel and very smart movie, it manages to be the ultimate ‘story for everyone who works for a living’, as the Glengarry Glen Ross tagline goes. It is scary in its depiction of the lengths that a power structure will go to sustain itself, and delivers an extremely important message about being vigilant and never abandoning your principles, especially when the odds are stacked against you. Paul Schrader has reportedly disowned the film due to his nightmarish experience making it (Pryor pulled out a gun when asked to do more than three takes, as you do), but I wish he hadn’t, as it is one of his best films and couldn’t have been made better. Seek this one out as soon as possible.