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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.


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