Walter Hill's directorial debut was 1975's Hard Times, a period film set in depression era New Orleans in which a fifty-something Charles Bronson plays a drifter named Chaney. When the movie begins, he's hopped a train and landed in New Orleans. With only six bucks to his name, he's got to find a way to make some money but the employment situation is grim. As he's handy with his fists, he figures he could earn some quick cash by fighting. After he stumbles more or less completely by chance into a brawl that he promptly wins, he catches the eye of a fast talker named Speed (James Coburn) who offers to manage him for the lion's share of their winnings. Chaney agrees and Speed brings on Poe (Strother Martin), a man with some dubious medical training and an opium problem, to help out with post fight first aid duties.
Speed sets up a fight, Chaney wins it. Then Speed sets up another fight, this time against the local champion, a massive grinning psychopath and Chaney takes him on too, inside a mesh pen of sorts. At this point, Chaney's earned enough money that he's more or less done with the idea, but a name fighter from Chicago is en route to New Orleans but Chaney doesn't want to do it and he knows the man from Illinois won't do it for free. Speed's got a loan shark after him for some past due debt, while Chaney falls for a kindly prostitute named Lucy (Jill Ireland). Inevitably, Chaney steps in to help Speed but he's going to do so on his own terms.
Like a lot of Hill's movies, Hard Times is a pretty manly film, a movie about tough guys doing what they've got to do in order to survive. The characters, however, make the picture more so than the fight scenes. Not that the movie doesn't deliver some solid action, because it does: the scenes in which Chaney takes on his opponents are hard hitting and sometimes surprisingly brutal given the movie's PG rating. This is important to the story being told but it never overshadows the characters. We don't know a lot about Chaney, he wanders into the movie and at one point makes some vague references to his past, and then just as he arrived he more or less wanders out. Plot heavy this picture is not. That doesn't make him any less interesting, however, and the relationships that form between he and Speed and Poe are deep enough that there's enough charm and bonding and just interesting development to keep us wanting more.
Chaney is one of those roles that Bronson was born to play. He's a man of few words, a calm and cool character but one who you don't necessarily want to cross. He brings a sense of fair play to the role alongside an impressive screen presence and some serious menace. For a man in his fifties when the movie was made, he's in great shape here, but that weathered face of his tells some stories, letting us know that even if he doesn't want to spill the details, Chaney has lead a hard life. Coburn as Speed is the polar opposite, he's got a mouth on him, the kind that gets him into trouble but which can often help in talking his way out of it too. He's got an infectious grin, a smile full of teeth with loads of charm and he's great in the part. Martin too is fun here, and Ireland also solid in her role, though she isn't given as much to do as the others. The cast bring their best to their performances, there's not a weak one in the bunch.
On top of that, the movie is an impressive achievement in terms of technique as well. The movie looks great, letting us soak in a lot of New Orleans scenery, the sets decorated with loads of period detail and atmosphere. The camera work is excellent and the score weighty enough to emphasize the action and the drama without overdoing it. The plot might meander a bit and the movie is oddly folksy at times, but anyone with an appreciation for this type of material ought to appreciate the film Hill has crafted with Hard Times, a fairly poignant and at times almost poetic film filled with gritty atmosphere and great characters.
Twilight Time presents Hard Times on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed in the movie's original aspect ratio of 2.35.1. All in all, this transfer is nice. Detail is sharp and crisp, contrast looks good and not to have been tinkered with at all and the color reproduction is excellent. There are some scenes that look a bit soft but this would appear to have been the way in which the movie was shot. The image is grainy without looking dirty and there are no issues with any serious print damage, even if eagle eyed viewers might spot the odd speck here and there.
Black levels are solid, texture is good and the image is a strong one from start to finish. You'll notice detail in close up shots, Bronson's weathered face being the perfect example, but also in medium and long distance shots too, such as the hairs on the back of a hog in its pen or the moss hanging off of trees in a park. Fans should be pretty happy with the image quality here.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on the disc is a solid one. Optional closed captioning is provided in English only The audio quality here also impresses. Surrounds are used somewhat sparingly compared to more modern mixes, but that suits the tone, style and age of the movie rather well. Most of the surround activity comes from the score but you'll notice the rear channels spring to life during the fight scenes where you can clearly hear people in the audience reacting to the action. Dialogue is always crystal clear, there are no issues with any hiss or distortion and the levels are nicely balanced. There's really nothing to complain about here at all, the movie sounds great.
Aside from menus and chapter stops, we get a theatrical trailer for the feature and an isolated score. Inside the keepcase alongside the disc is a booklet of liner notes that offer some welcome perspective and history on the movie written by Julie Kirgo.
Twilight Time have done a very nice job bringing Walter Hill's directorial debut to Blu-ray for the first time. The audio and video quality are both excellent and if the extras aren't anything to write home about, at least it's not a barebones release. The movie itself holds up well, a really nicely made and hard hitting slice of life story featuring some rock solid work from a very talented cast and crew. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.