Looking back at The Hard Way

James Woods and Michael J Fox starred in the underrated comedy cop thriller, The Hard Way. Simon takes a look back...

Bonnie Timmerman. We wanted to mention her name up front, because we don’t really look at casting directors when we do look back pieces such as these. There’s a good reason, and that’s that it’s hard to understand, to outsiders such as ourselves, who actually casts what role.

Timmerman is credited as the casting director on John Badham’s woefully underappreciated The Hard Way, but was it she who suggested the teaming of James Woods and Michael J Fox? If it was, she deserves a medal. And a raise.

The Hard Way was released in 1991, but for large parts, it feels like an 80s film. No more so, in fact, than when the garish credits overlay on a very dated looking New York City. This was the New York we saw in the movies a lot in 80s movies. It’s a beaten up place, an unpleasant place, and a crime-ridden place. Now, the depiction of New York on the big screen tends to come with more gloss than not, yet despite taking place at parts in the centre of Manhattan, The Hard Way dispenses with that very early on.

The idea behind the film is a decent one, even if it is, at heart, the evolution of the mismatched cops subgenre that was prevalent at the time it was made. However, the twist here is that James Woods is the cop, and a pretty miserable, lonely one. Michael J Fox, meanwhile, is a movie star, fed up of genre films such as his latest release, Smoking Gunn II. He wants to be considered for earthier roles, though, yet never gets the call. As such, when he sees footage of Woods’ detective on the TV, he decides he’s the man he needs to properly get inside the head of a police officer. What could possibly go wrong with that? 

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Thus, the scene is set. After spending the best part of 15 minutes giving Woods’ Detective Moss plenty of reasons to hate Fox’s Nick Lang without even meeting him, the latter is foisted on the former. And the former isn’t happy about it. A grumpy James Woods versus a chipper and enthusiastic Michael J Fox, then.

Now, mismatched cops are no rarity on the big screen, but the gold of The Hard Way is that union of Fox and Woods, both of whom deserve lots of credit for different reasons here. Woods is, frankly, brilliant, as he usually is. There’s no doubt at all that he hates the idea of having a Hollywood superstar foisted on him, and the facial expressions, sneers, and the quick put downs (“Dickless Tracy” being a particular favourite) that he spits out are borderline priceless. Some actors fail to convince you that they dislike the character they’re paired with on screen. Woods? It’s never in question. Even when dealing with the elements designed to soften his character somewhat, such as the introduction of his latest romance – an underused Annabella Sciorra – Woods’ edge never really softens.

The Hard Way scores particularly when it comes to comedy, and the finest example of this is when Fox’s Lang tries to teach Woods’ Moss how to talk to a woman. It’s a scene that holds up really well. In different hands, this could have gone crassly, and really not worked at all. Here, though, it’s a scene that serves two purposes. Firstly, it’s the first tangible sign that Lang can be of use to Moss. Secondly, it’s a brilliant comedy double act. Michael J Fox doesn’t get enough credit for the skill with which he subtlely pitches his comedic performances sometimes, but he really should for The Hard Way. He steals a scene right from under the nose of James Woods, and that’s no small feat.

Of course then, this being a buddy movie, Woods and Fox start as opposites, and gradually come together. That said, what we respect about The Hard Way is that, even come the end credits, neither character has completely transformed. Even as we head into the last act, Lang is full of movie star traits, while there’s still a marked percentage of Moss that hates his guts. There’s no walking off into the sunset together here, ready to fight another case. The last we see of Moss in the film is him being pissed off with something Lang has done.

Furthermore, The Hard Way has something to it that would quickly be dispensed were the screenplay to be put through the Hollywood system now: a nasty edge. Stephen Lang’s villain – the Party Crasher – isn’t brilliantly developed, but he’s a proper one. He’s a genuinely unpleasant force, that gives the pair a foe to fight about. Also: people die. 

All that said, The Hard Way is a film that shouldn’t be viewed through rose-tinted glasses. John Badham, for instance, is a good director of most of the material (particularly excelling at giving his leads the space and time to have a lot of fun), but you wonder what an on-form Richard Donner would make of it, or what a modern take from Shane Black would look like. The problem is that, apart from the near-finale set in a cinema, it’s the action side that lets the film down. There’s little excitement to the action, and it slows down the film, and takes away from the gold at the heart of it.

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That gold is plentiful, though, and it’s in the performances, and the writing (Daniel Pyne and Lem Dobbs were credited with the screenplay, with Dobbs and Michael Kozoll on story duties). Heck, we haven’t even got to some of the supporting players. Delroy Lindo in particular is on great form, as the police captain, and Moss’ boss, who’s utterly obsessed with Nick Lang, and willing to bow to whatever he wants. Furthermore, add in an always-welcome turn from Luis Guzman, who surely must have warranted a good leading role or two by now.

In spite of getting decent reviews on its original release, though, The Hard Way never really set the box office alight. It was part of a three-picture deal that Fox had with Universal Pictures at the time, which would also take in Life With Mikey and Greedy. None of them would ignite, and Fox’s movie career never came close to the levels he enjoyed with the Back To The Future series on the big screen again (on the small screen, he enjoyed a lot more success). Furthermore, we’ve never seen James Woods in such an outright commercial role since, either. 

John Badham, meanwhile, a director we’ve got a lot of time for, went from this to the American take on Luc Besson’s Nikita. It went under the name of The Assassin (if you live in the UK) or Point Of No Return (if you’re in the States), and it’s a pretty effective flick, where the action is far livelier. From there, he’d do a forgettable sequel to Stakeout, the Wesley Snipes skydiving action flick Drop Zone (Terminal Velocity is much better), and the slightly ahead of its time Nick Of Time. Like the mismatched cops genre, his biggest and most acclaimed successes were behind him by the time he came to The Hard Way.

The Hard Way’s worldwide take of just over $65m saw the film creep into profit, but not at the levels required for us to meet Moss and Lang on the big screen again. Given the continued animosity between them come the final credits, that’s a pity, as there seemed to be more there to explore.

But then, the genre itself was changing. Aside from some Lethal Weapon sequels, and the tired-but-successful Rush Hour movies, the most successful days of the mismatched cops action comedies were gone. 80s saturation took care of that. The sad thing is that The Hard Way, a far better film than its profile would suggest, seemed to get forgotten in the midst of all of this. The pitiful DVD release and lack of a Blu-ray is further evidence of that. It’s a shame. A new special edition, with as much of film-within-a-film Smoking Gunn II that exists as a special feature, would be very, very welcome.

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