The Hard Way

(John Badham, USA, 1991)


In America, Touchstone – the revamped version of Walt Disney Productions – seemingly perfected the formula for a successful, commercial movie in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.


Touchstone’s films (such as Pretty Woman, 1990) are in fact the most obviously calculated, contrived, formulaic films made anywhere in the world. The Touchstone recipe: take a few stars, alternate a few different genres, mix in the latest pop culture fads, and provide either a feel-good emotional clinch or a bloodless action sequence every ten minutes.


Director John Badham made Stakeout for Touchstone in 1987; with his own production company, he is clearly trying to emulate the same, sure-fire formula here. The Hard Way is a paradoxical object: soulless and pointless, but undeniably well crafted and entertaining.


Badham is a master at holding together hybrid action-comedies that, in lesser hands, would almost certainly fall apart. The Hard Way, scripted by Daniel Pyne (Pacific Heights, 1990) and Lem Dobbs (The Limey, 1999), forces together Michael J. Fox (doing his familiar comic routine) as Nick, and James Woods – that nervy, manic, brilliant actor who tore up the screen in Cop (1988) and Best Seller (1987) – as Moss. Woods plays a renegade cop (what else?), and Nick is the pampered Hollywood star who gets assigned to Moss’ beat to research an upcoming part.


Nick gets on Moss’ nerves from the word go, placing The Hard Way in a very long line of contempory films about crazily mismatched law-enforcers (Downtown [1990], 48 Hrs. [1982], Stakeout, Alien Nation [1988]) – a subgenre baptised the buddy-cop movie. Fox’s presence allows a flood of clever jokes about contemporary Hollywood, with its sequels and fads, while Woods’ rampaging sets up the spectacular, tough-guy set-pieces in back alleys and atop skyscrapers.


Every time it threatens to become just an anthology of the best moments from related hit movies, Badham plays a sly game with our expectations. When Nick, robbed of his luggage in a black ghetto, announces he’s going into a nearby joint to get it back, we instantly recall Eddie Murphy turning a redneck bar upside down in 48 Hrs. But the camera doesn’t follow Nick inside; it simply waits a few beats to see him come crashing out though the front window, defeated and humiliated.


The central and cleverest idea involves the discrepancy between Nick’s movie-inspired fantasies, and the gritty, violent reality into which he is plunged. Wherever Nick goes, he sizes up the situation’s cinematic potential: “It’s so real, so dirty … just like a movie!” The real laugh comes from our recognition that what he sees is indeed just a movie: Hollywood’s latest set of sanitised low-life clichés, expertly manipulated by Badham.


There is much in The Hard Way that, in true Touchstone style, is derivative and mechanical, including Moss’ Clint Eastwood-style problems with emotional intimacy, or the ascetic, punk-chic, evil-genius psycho-killer The Party Crasher (!) played by Stephen Lang.


Yet, at its best, Badham’s film is intricate, energetic, exhilarating entertainment.

MORE Badham: Nick of Time, Point of No Return, Blue Thunder

© Adrian Martin June 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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