Skip to main content

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way

(SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day, Bright Lights, Big City, Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “I’m the only one who wants me to grow up!

The Hard Way was Fox’s first release post-the conclusion to the Marty McFly trilogy, and it set the scene for a string of ’90s underperformers for the actor, even as he resigned himself to the lightweight fare that more suited his persona. Not helping any was his diagnosis with Parkinson’s during 1991, leading him to jump into a three-picture deal of subpar movies (Life with Mikey, For Love or Money and Greedy). Rather making the words of co-star James Woods at the time drip with unintentional irony: "We got along famously, impeccably, the best of friends. I just love Michael. He's funny and bright. We'll be friends forever. He enjoys life. He's got the perfect life -- a great wife and kid, great success, incredible riches. He says, 'I've hit the lottery, and I'm enjoying it.' You've got to love someone who's that candid about enjoying himself". Woods was rumoured not to have got on with the actor (and the same piece quotes Fox as calling Woods "Intense, just incredibly intense"). Nice to know he didn’t receive the Sean Penn and co treatment from the “cooler” actor, though. That’s Sean Penn, renowned humanitarian, so much so, he’s knee-deep in mandatory inoculations and prescribing more by the minute – in a strictly Hitlerian sense – to anyone within the same studio boundaries as him.

Director John Badham, meanwhile, was coming off a string of hits; in the run from WarGames to Bird on a Wire, only American Flyers floundered. He was working from a screenplay credited to Lem Dobbs (later Kafka, Dark City, The Limey) and Daniel Pyne (Pacific Heights, Doc Hollywood, White Sands); as Hollywood movies taking the rise out of the Tinseltown often are, The Hard Way is often very sharp. The actual procedural part is fairly slack, it must be admitted, resting on the easy crutch of a vigilante serial killer; The Party Crasher (Stephen Lang, then best known for weasely reporter Freddie Lounds in Michael Mann’s serial-killer thriller Manhunter) is barely even sketched in. As Badham said: “All we know about him is the actions he takes to ruin any situation he is in. The rest was delegated to Stephen Lang, a brilliant actor, fresh from his Broadway creation of the character that Jack Nicholson later played in A Few Good Men. The hair, the makeup, and the physicality were all created by Stephen…

I’m not sure anything more robust would really have served the material, though. The structure is one of Woods’ Lieutenant John Moss trying to stop the Crasher while being assigned Lang, whom he loathes; Lang, better known for Indy-like Joe Gunn (in Smoking Gunn II – “Where there’s smoke, there’s Joe Gunn”) is attempting to snag the gritty role of Nick Cazenove in gritty cop drama Blood on the Asphalt. You couldn’t wish for more perfect screen chemistry (Badham again: “Put Woods and Fox together in any scene and each one is battling for screen space. If they didn’t pay attention the scene would be stolen from them by the other. The comedic tension is palpable”). Everything Moss can do, Lang has no idea about. And in some respects, vice versa.

Moss is attempting to pursue a normal romantic relationship with Susan (Annabella Sciorra, who makes the role work surprisingly effectively, given its peripheral nature), but being an ultra-serious, moody, slave to work, it’s not looking good (he also hasn’t proved a hit with Susan’s daughter Bonnie, Christina Ricci in her second screen role). Lang, in contrast, finds such emotional minefields a breeze. Indeed, he can wrap anyone but Moss around his little finger (Delroy Lindo’s Captain Brix is poised to lay down the law regarding Nick’s desire for a gun, but as soon as he enters his office he changes his tune: “I gotta tell you… my wife’s really crazy about you”). He doesn’t take kindly to Nick’s advice – “Next time, invite the kid” – but in due course finds himself engaging in role play, in a bar, with Nick as Susan: “Talk to me, John”; “Oh, don’t you take that tone with me”. Woods recalls of that scene, which wasn’t working, “Michael came up with this adlib where he said ‘don’t you take that tone with me?’, and that’s when it opened up” (in the same interview, Woods notes of the notoriously-close-to-his-chest Travolta, “John’s such a fucking sweetheart. He’s an incredibly funny guy. Very funny and very right wing”. Which sweetheart John must have thanked Jimmy for).

Moss is a barrage of insults, to his face or otherwise – “I hate that guy, Dickless Tracy” – such that even at the end of the movie, when they’re watching Nick in The Good, the Badge and the Ugly, he’s unrepentant: “This whole movie is stuff that I said to him! The little son of a bitch stole my life!” For Nick’s part, he’s utterly oblivious to the grit of John’s world (albeit this is all about layers, since a Badham movie is pretty far from even Hollywood definitions of realism): “I mean, it’s like a movie, it’s so real” he observes of the police station. He’s jazzed when John goes to pay a call on gang the Dead Romeos: “I’m in the ghetto!” he exclaims, breathless for “The dirt, the crime, the human drama”. A little less so when accosted by a “threatening” Raggedy Man (Bill Cobbs) chuckling “I may have to kill you later” (one of picture’s funniest of its many hilarious beats). When Nick, under heavy gunfire, bursts into the Romeos den, he is told he looks like Lang: “I know, only shorter, right?” To which he receives the whip-smart response “No, whiter” (eliciting Moss’ mirth. Indeed, it’s notable that The Party Crasher is also on the same page as his nemesis regarding Nick: “I hate your movies”).

But Nick insists of John “You’re a Yoda among cops” and remains blissfully oblivious to his rebukes (“Don’t eat like me, don’t sit like me. Do not smoke like me”); when John launches into his “seventeen takes to get it right…” speech (the one Nick reproduces in the movie-within-the-movie), Nick’s awed not at the sincerity but how it makes for juicy material (“Fuck, that was great. John, can you just do that one more time, please?”) So John is reduced to defacing Nick posters, driven spare by seeing Lang everywhere (“I have got to get rid of this guy”) and staging a fake shooting in an attempt to do so.

The movie-ness of The Hard Way is infectious. Penny Marshall’s a delight as Nick’s manager Angie, responding to his quip about Shakespearian sequels with the example of Henry V (“It won awards for that little Scottish fellow”) and reacting with some disdain towards Nick’s desire to taste the fear – “and vomit”. Asked if she likes Nick Lang, Bonnie responds “I used to when I was little. I like Mel Gibson now” (who starred in Badham’s previous movie). A delighted Moss agrees (“I love him. I love Mel Gibson”). Nick, as shallow as only a community that gets wholeheartedly behind Greta could be, proudly announces that all his movies “are shot on biodegradable film stock” and calls out the inevitability of climactic developments: “It’s the third act, John” (with references to animal-fixated sequences in The Godfather and Fatal Attraction).

Badham also delights in visual conceits, in particular the giant smoking Nick Lang face on the side of a building that kicks off the movie and provides the staging for the climax. At one point, Nick “heroically” falls into his own face adorning a cinema screen. There are also some interesting oddball flourishes. The almost surrealist choice of music from Badham regular composer Arthur B Rubenstein during the opening night club scene, where confusion overtakes the dancefloor. Some loopy transitions too, such as the camera swirling over The Party Crasher’s head as he sits at the computer; Big Girls Don’t Cry sparks up on the soundtrack, cutting to Nick leading Susan and Bonnie in a rendition. And the absurdist, extended slow motion of Nick crashing the car with the Crasher aboard, the former’s instructions to “Drop the gun. Drop the gun!" dubbed over the soundtrack.

The Hard Way’s a riot of inspired moments, though, such as the passengers on a subway train pulling out guns on in unison, possibly not as well remembered as it should be because, doubtless coincidentally, Predator 2 had the drop on the same idea, released a slender three and half months earlier. Nick’s “I’m driving here! I’m driving here!” riffs on Marty McFly’s nephew in Back to the Future Part II, himself quoting Midnight Cowboy (“I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”)

If Fox and Woods are dream casting, the support are also memorable. Lang is bug-nuts crazy, by turns anglicised in accent and looking like Adam Clayton of U2. Lindo is enormous fun in the knowingly clichéd irascible captain role. LL Cool J has the not-as-big-a-hit-as-you-remembered Mama Said Knock You Out peppering the soundtrack and also appears as Detective Billy (“Frog dog, Ray. Mmmm. Tasty!”) Luiz Guzman, Mary Mara and Kathy Najimy also appear.

Nick Lang has made $1.2bn in combined ticket sales, but The Hard Way could only gross $65.6 worldwide. It counts as probably Fox’s last great lead role, though (I might give you The Frighteners) and Woods’ too, give or take Diggstown/Midnight Sting. It turned out Badham too had peaked, as nothing during the rest of the decade (Another Stakeout, The Assassin, Drop Zone, Nick of Time) did more than tepid business. He retreated to TV (he’s still directing at 81, so good on him). The Hard Way’s a gem. Forget more embraced Hollywood satires of the period (Postcards from The Edge, The Player). This is the real deal.

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

You’re the pattern and the prototype for a whole new age of biological exploration.

The Fly II (1989) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg was not, it seems, a fan of the sequel to his hit 1986 remake, and while it’s quite possible he was just being snobby about a movie that put genre staples above theme or innovation, he wasn’t alone. Fox had realised, post- Aliens , that SF properties were ripe for hasty follow ups, and indiscriminately mined a number of popular pictures to immediately diminishing returns during the period ( Cocoon , Predator ). Neither critics nor audiences were impressed. In the case of The Fly II , though, it would be unfair to label the movie as outright bad. It simply lacks that *idea* that would justify the cash-in.