It’s always true, but in this case they REALLY don’t make them like they used to
When your buddy cop action comedy’s denouement takes place atop a massive physical 3D billboard sculpted in the likeness of Michael J. Fox and suspended above New York City’s Times Square… you know you’re DEEP into “they don’t make them like they used to” territory.
And honestly, for good or for ill, watching 1991’s The Hard Way from director John Badham and producer Rob Cohen here in 2020 was somewhat of an experiment in generational comparison. In general I loathe the concept of hurling the term “dated” at a film. It’s almost always used as an insult or to heap scorn upon anything that isn’t the newest/latest/best. Yet, having grown up on a steady diet of films of The Hard Way’s ilk, but watching this particular buddy cop action comedy for the first time in the accursed anno domini two thousand and twenty, one couldn’t help but experience something akin to time travel.
Everyone in the formidable cast of The Hard Way seems to have gotten the memo that this was to be a “good time at the movies”. James Woods’ Det. John Moss is your typical high strung, rules-flaunting movie detective who only works alone, has no trouble cracking a few skulls to get some information, and will stop at nothing to put a stop to (all-time great character actor) Stephen Lang’s absurdly over the top serial killer known as “The Party Crasher”. Michael J. Fox’s Nick Lang is the pretty boy coddled Hollywood star who’s looking to break into more serious roles and finagles an extended undercover ride along assignment with the extremely uncooperative Moss. We’ve all seen this part of the movie before. Moss and Lang will get on each other’s last nerve until the finale, when they’ll realize the need to depend on each other to take down the Crasher.
But the supporting cast here is astonishing and worth highlighting. On Moss’ department you’ve got Luis Guzman and L.L. Cool J (perhaps his first screen role, packaged along with the generous usage of eternal banger Mama Said Knock You Out in the soundtrack) as co-workers and Delroy Lindo as the angry police chief. Moss is also kicking off a fledgling dating relationship with Annabella Sciorra (whose daughter happens to be Christina Ricci, with this film and The Addams Family both hitting in 1991). On the Hollywood side of things, Nick Lang’s agent is played by none other than the legendary Penny Marshall. It’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to a stellar ensemble cast working together at pivotal times in their careers.
Screenwriters Lem Dobbs and Daniel Pyne know exactly what they’re doing with the tried and true formula of The Hard Way. By 1991 the buddy cop action comedy is a well established genre in its own right, with seminal films like Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, etc, having long since set the template. The angle here comes in sending up Hollywood culture with the over the top Nick Lang character poking fun at self-serious and clueless superstar behavior whenever possible. Hollywood LOVES movies about movies, and loves making fun of itself too. The script keeps things moving briskly and sprinkles in some inventive action set pieces as necessary, many of which involve the aforementioned Nick Lang billboard. The biggest problem, perhaps, with the script, is simply that it is never quite as funny as it thinks it is. Fox’s antics as Lang are amusing fairly frequently, but never quite laugh out loud funny. And with Woods and Fox working overtime to get laughs out of us, it feels like the film is trying very hard but never quite achieving what it’s going for.
And in terms of how unavoidable it is to view this film through a 2020 lens, it’s unfortunate but must be commented upon. Star James Woods has become an outspoken troll via his social media accounts and has managed to make his personal life so toxic that it’s hard to enjoy his on screen angry cop persona in a year marred by rampant mistreatment of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement. In fact, there’s even a scene when Moss breaks into the apartment of a young black gang and threateningly roughs them up for information. It’s so very uncomfortable and Lang is just soaking it all in with wonder as inspiration for his next gritty cop role. You almost can’t help but wince as this lighthearted comedy makes a point to elevate the heroism of Moss even as he trods all over literally everyone in his path.
The Hard Way has its moments, and is generously sprinkled with charm throughout. It just never quite rises to the levels of some of director John Badham’s other work, such as Bird On A Wire or even Stakeout (though my memories of that one are hazy and that might warrant a revisit). Michael J. Fox is as likeable as they come, but even he borders on insufferable as the film congratulates itself for sticking it to Hollywood. And Woods got so far with this asshole persona that he seems to have carried it over to his personal life to make anyone who engages with him on social media suffer along with him. But while The Hard Way does indeed trod in some offensive tropes and self-congratulation, it’s hard to get TOO mad at a movie featuring a giant action set piece on top of a massive, mechanical Michael J. Fox face.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of The Hard Way also coincides with another Michael J. Fox release: The Secret Of My Success. The Blu-ray looked pretty fantastic to my untrained eye. And you get a commentary track here with Director John Badham, Producer/Second Unit Director/Fast And The Furious spawner Rob Cohen, moderated by film historian Daniel Kremer. It’s a fun commentary with Badham and Cohen clearly having a strong affinity for one another and talking extensively about the shorthand they were able to establish in making several films together.
Fans of the film will be pleased with this release, one imagines. Newcomers, like me, may find a few chinks in the film’s armor, but can likely still manage to have a good time.
And I’m Out.
The Hard Way hits Blu-ray 10/6/2020 from Kino Lorber Studio Classics