Michael J. Fox and James Woods Pair up for Overcooked Action-Comedy.
DIRECTED BY JOHN BADHAM/1991
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 6, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Some may’ve been entertained at the time, but looking at 1991’s The Hard Way today, the film may appear as more of a cautionary tale. Not because of the unfortunate fates and permutations of its stars Michael J. Fox, James Woods and Annabella Sciorra; but because its ham-fisted idea of comedy shoehorned into an inflated midrange buddy actioner results in something noxiously “off”. One can picture a younger Jerry Bruckheimer looking at this and taking all the wrong lessons in terms of how he’d go on to package popcorn action spectacles in the ‘90s and early 2000s. While not as overblown as Bruckenheimer’s productions would be, The Hard Way is nonetheless altogether overcooked.
The inclusion of megastar Fox as one of the co-leads only adds to the disappointment. (It’s increasingly difficult to remember a time when the presence of James Woods sold anything- though yes, it once did). In retrospect, the late 1980s and early 1990s were something of a cinema desert, yielding little opportunity for Fox to spawn another hit ala Back to the Future. (Excepting of course, the back-to-back Back to the Futures that he starred in then). Putting aside the common observations of the day that, for a leading man, he was, you know, kinda twerpy and squeaky, Fox was fully capable of lighting up the screen in the right role. Not exactly versatile, but then, how many movie stars really ever are?
With The Hard Way, we find him on precipice of a decline he’d never rebound from. His time in the sun on the silver screen was fading, corresponding, we later found out, with a difficult Parkinson’s disease diagnosis which came in 1991, the same year as this film. Even in his subsequent ongoing struggle with the disease, though, Fox has remained a hard worker and a revered actor. One would be hard pressed to find a performance where Fox isn’t giving his established all.
That said, the decision to play a self-conscious famous actor who gets himself paired with New York’s toughest cop (Woods, constipated) must’ve been made with strings attached. And yet, the project managed to draw in not only then-star Woods and then-superstar Fox, but successful director John Badham, of Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit fame. Badham, as he explains on the recently recorded commentary track, made the film for his own happenin’ production company, also employing future directing Big Shot Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious; xXx; second unit director here). For some reason, they had a lot faith in The Hard Way and still seem fond of it today, despite that the film is a handwringing tripey foray into cinema lameness gone by.
In the film, Fox plays a famous Hollywood actor looking to broaden his dramatic horizons and shake free of the dopey action-comedies he’s gotten locked into. When he sees the heroics of NYC cop (Woods) on the news, he knows what he must do. Before long, in the name of research, he’s gotten himself tethered to a strongly disapproving Woods. You know, driving around to crime scenes, getting shot at, eating crappy street food, wandering into scrapes… Fox spazzes out at every turn while Woods grouses about this unasked-for liability from La-La Land that he must babysit. It’s been said that this is the inspiration for the TV show Castle.
Simply put, this might’ve been a contributor in why they don’t make movies quite like this anymore. Not that the R-rated The Hard Way was necessarily box office poison. (In that regard, it was just “meh”). But such “mid-budget” irate buddy movies that nevertheless feel bloated went the way of the dodo. Contemporary clones like Ride Along share the character dynamics but lack the garish scope.
Case in point: The Hard Way ends with a showdown with the film’s villain (Stephen Lang, coming in swingin’) on and inside of the biggest, most elaborate automated promotional billboard that anyone’s ever seen. It’s more of a mechanical Mount Rushmore-esque monument crafted in the three-dimensional likeness of Fox; a Times Square promotion for his character’s latest lamebrained action-comedy. It’s big enough that characters can hang from the nose and, when they slip, make a desperate Hail Mary landing on his giant smokable cigarette, dangling stories over the bustling street below. Inside, it’s got more cogs and pistons than a vintage Grand Central Station clock and a generic industrial factory combined.
Far before the end, there’s the realization that The Hard Way wants it both ways: to mock big dumb crowd-pleasing Hollywood action-comedies, but also to be one. Woods’ character lectures that there’s more to being an effective cop than car chases, shootouts, and roughing up drug dealing ethnic minorities (cringe), yet that’s literally all he does. Fox’s character longs to be taken seriously as an actor (perhaps as Fox once did), but he neurotically embodies the very essence of his movie-within-the-movie persona (glimpsed as a fake trailer). Sciorra as the ping-ponging love interest becomes caught up in the shuffle as the hunt for a serial killer takes over the plot.
Some may claim that Badham and company were angling for some sort of meta commentary on the then-current state of mass entertainment. In truth, it’s just a mess of misplaced aspirations to largeness and conflicting boiler plate ideas. Obviously, they chose The Hard Way.