Laborare est orare, so goes the hymn to the "hard-workin’, fucked-over man." The Detroit Checker Cab plant is introduced as a hammering inferno of endless conveyors and welding sparks, surveyed by Paul Schrader in lateral-diagonal tracking shots and freeze-frames. Auto workers are strapped cogs in the rotten machinery, one (Richard Pryor) has to borrow his neighbor’s kids to fool the IRS agent while another (Harvey Keitel) comes home to realize his daughter tried to use paper clips for the dental braces he couldn't afford. Company foremen are about as sympathetic as busted vending machines, the most attractive thing about the labor union is the safe guarded by a sleepy watchman. The idea of larcenous justice comes to the friends in the orgy hangover hosted by the ex-con bachelor (Yaphet Kotto), and soon they’re in over their heads dealing with Mafia sharks and FBI agents. "Maybe we should have just robbed a liquor store like everyone else." Salt-and-pepper comradeship can’t compete with a grinding system, there are only various shades of compromise and betrayal in Schrader’s view, and then death. People are literally mangled by the apparatus of oppression, the incorruptible Kotto is trapped in the factory paint room and dispatched in a metallurgic version of the bathhouse murder from Mann’s T-Men. (Brute Force, Who’s Minding the Mint?, The Working Class Goes to Heaven and Tout va Bien figure throughout.) Keitel jumpily asleep hugging a rifle is a key Schrader shot, though the wild card is Pryor the scalding satirist shading into a desperate family man, wounded and wounding: "Fuck Uncle Sam, man!" A deterministic pamphlet ("jukebox Marxism," says Pauline Kael), a dark-tinged prole caper, a crimson tableau of impotent wrath -- and, as always with the filmmaker, the eye of the aesthete who longs to be a roughneck. With Harry Bellaver, Ed Begley Jr., George Memmoli, Lucy Saroyan, Lane Smith, and Cliff De Young.
--- Fernando F. Croce