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

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989) (SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch , or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins . Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon.  It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy ( Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Bi

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the