Skip to main content

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

The Hard Way
(1991)

(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

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.