Probably best known as the director of Saturday Night fever, John Badham didn’t do much else in the musical vein; instead, he went for action movies, and successes like Blow Out and Blue Thunder demonstrated that he had to chops for Saturday night entertainment. Mooted as a vehicle for Gene Hackman and Kevin Klein, this street-smart buddy-cop movie doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but provides some gentle amusements amongst the car-chases and ‘walking into closed door’ pratfalls, of which there are many collected here.
The cast instead skews young; Michael J Fox plays Nick Lang, a vain actor who is frustrated by playing rote tough-guys; his latest movie, Smoking Gunn II is just out, but the actor yearns for meaning in his life. He fixates on NYC cop John Moss, played with his usual twitchy energy by James Woods. Moss is engaged in a battle-of wits with the Party Crasher, a serial killer played with oodles of arrogance by Avatar’s villain Stephen Lang. Moss and Lang have little in common, but a grudging respect grows between them as they track down the killer over a series of well-filmed action scenes.
‘I love Mel Gibson’ snarls Woods in one of a number of lines that place this movie firmly in 1991; from a story by regular Soderberg writer Lem Dobbs, The Hard Way manages to poke fun at genre clichés while making them work in a post-modern context. Lang learns something about how his Hollywood mores don’t translate to a scuzzy real-world, while Moss comes to find some appreciation for Lang’s acting abilities and applies them to his own work. It’s an Odd Couple number for sure, but with plenty of margin notes; Lang’s briefly glimpsed films have a number of Back to the Future references to savour, and Fox seems to relish playing a weak, yet still likable character.
The Hard Way is a disposable film, and not for the ages; that said, it’s also fun and entertaining to watch, not stinting on flying police-cars and death-defying cliff-hanger action; the finale atop a Times Square billboard looks impressively vertiginous. Delroy Lindo, Annabella Sciorra and Penny Marshall provide support, there’s an early Christina Ricci role, and LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out features not once but twice; what more do you want from a popcorn flick?