Three convicts are being transported through New York City, but the police van carrying them crashes; when one of the guards ventures around the back to check on them, he opens the doors only to be struck on the head by their leader, Jessie Lee Kane (William Sanderson) who knocks him insensible and steals his gun. Shooting the handcuffs apart with it, the three bad guys indulge in a brief gun battle with the driver, then carjack another vehicle, heading off for the Canadian border - but will they reach it?
As this trio are waylaid on the road to the border, it seems unlikely, but that was not what most of those who caught this tawdry little film were pondering, as what was really pushed into your face was the outright racism of the Kane character. Legend has it that in the few cinemas it was shown, there were a number of riots started, or at least a lot of loud complaining directed at the screen, such was the vileness of Kane's dialogue which sounded as if the filmmakers had drawn up a list of every racial slur they could conceive of and included it in their script.
Not that he simply sits there on the journey North and spouts these insults for his own amusement, he does meet a black family presently, thanks to holding up a liquor store, shooting the owner, and taking a young woman hostage, demanding that she shows them the way to her isolated home in the woods where she lives with her folks, including preacher Ted Turner (Robert Judd). This is not the sort of movie the real Ted Turner would show on his channels, it's safe to say, and indeed it would be hard to justify reviving anywhere much, especially as director Robert A. Endelson presented a dilemma with some shady aims.
True, he did include a couple of scenes showing members of the Turner family in racial harmony with a couple of whites, the daughter's best friend and their deceased son's ex-fiancée for one, and the youngest son's best friend who we see becoming "blood brothers" with. But the relish in the scenes where Kane terrorises the Turners is suspiciously full-blooded, as if instead of the usual sex or violence utilised in grindhouse flicks to pull in the punters Endelson had opted for race hate as his unique selling point. Not that Fight for Your Life was intended to start any violence in real life, but it did have you wondering what the appeal was supposed to be, a few (unintentionally?) comical asides from the indignant grandma apart the satisfaction gained would surely be a Pyrrhic victory.
Sanderson, at the beginning of his career and evidently unafraid to take roles which showed him as the worst kind of hick imaginable, was to his credit fully committed to his performance, not making this any more palatable, but at least he recognised that was far from the intention anyway, or not his intention at any rate. With his two criminal accomplices, Kane humiliates his hostages as the police uselessly try to track him outside, with every ray of hope extinguished, forcing the denouement to be as violent as possible. The Turners may grumble, but they put up with this until the breaking point is reached, Ted being a man of peace which he believes will help him through this ordeal when it makes things worse because Kane thinks he can walk all over them. As the day explodes in rape, murder and eventual revenge, a film that is often described as a cross between The Desperate Hours and Last House on the Left fizzles out much as you'd expect, not helping that Kane's punishment looked too much like the easy way out. Music by Jeff Slevin.