Paul Schrader tells the story of three workers, who are all more or less in the same boat. Three leads- Keitel, Pryor and Yaphet Kotto- play laborers on the Checker cab assembly line in Detroit. Richard Pryor, in easily his best performance, plays a man in trouble with the IRS. At work, he has a defective locker that continually cuts his hand when he fights with it. Yaphet Kotto is in debt to a loan shark, Keitel works a second job to get by and finds himself unable to pay for the dental treatment that his daughter needs. Pryor, Keitel and Kotto hated each other during the making of the film, so much so that many of their scenes play out in long master shots only. But when their money troubles pile up, they make a desperate plan to steal cash from their local union office. When they put their plans to work ,things eventually go from bad to worse. Richard Pryor shines in a performance that is both funny and heartbreaking. Harvey Keitel is in his usual magnetic self and Kotto is understated yet electric at the same time.
Schrader, who was at the time a renowned screenwriter for his work on Taxi Driver (1976), made his directorial debut with this film. The choice to go with a blue score is inspired in itself, as the nature of the music so perfectly captures what these characters are going through. There are several scenes that don’t feature any music at all, these being some of the most important scenes. Schrader made an impressive debut as director with this film. It is very rare to find an American film tackling issues like corruption in organised labour.