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Hard Way (1991), The
NOTE: The images accompanying this review are taken from online sources and do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray under review.
I would have been just turning 11 when The Hard Way hit VHS in the fall of 1991. As a young fan of buddy cop comedies and Hollywood movies in general, I remember I felt like The Hard Way was specifically tailored for me. James Woods is a hard-edged police lieutenant not too far afield from his character in 1988's Cop. Michael J. Fox is a pampered Hollywood actor who wants to study Woods for a role. Tough New York meets flaky L.A. What a perfect odd couple!
Watching The Hard Way on Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray brings alternating waves of nostalgia and (mild) disappointment. James Woods's John Moss and Michael J. Fox's Nick Lang may not be iconic to the world at large, but they are burned into my brain as signature roles that capture Woods and Fox doing what they do best. For instance, a scene where actor Lang decides to help out his new cop pal by role-playing as Moss's would-be girlfriend Susan (Annabella Sciorra) remains a delight because of the actors' commitment. Rather than play the scene for mere gay-panic giggles, the actors get laughs from Lang's mannered acting-exercise performance of Susan and from Moss's reluctant acquiescence to play along with this nut. But with the leads' chemistry just as fresh as I'd remembered it after all these years, it's a shame to realize how spotty the story surrounding these characters is.
Moss is on the trail of a serial killer called the Party Crasher (Avatar's Stephen Lang), who likes to call the cops before he kills his victims. While Stephen Lang enjoyably hams it up, emphasizing the demented fun the character derives from his crimes, the script does little to distinguish the Party Crasher from the post-Hans Gruber glut of flamboyant criminal masterminds in action flicks of this era. Even worse is the handling of Moss's love interest Susan. She gets a few charming scenes -- including one with a young, young Christina Ricci as her skeptical daughter -- before summarily getting kidnapped by the bad guy. The script is self-aware enough to have Nick Lang comment on how Susan's kidnapping is de rigueur once the story reaches "the third act," but it doesn't have the smarts to then make her anything more than a distressed damsel for Moss and Lang to save in the third act.
Director John Badham (WarGames, Stakeout) has an obvious fondness for his actors, though, and the supporting roles particularly shine: Delroy Lindo as the starstruck police chief, Luis Guzman as a detective who likes to needle Moss, LL Cool J as the precinct goofball, and Penny Marshall as one of Nick Lang's beleaguered handlers.
Even with its flaws, The Hard Way is winning and fun. It's not the neglected masterpiece of my pre-teen memory, but it's not trying to be either. In other words, The Hard Way goes down easy.
The AVC-encoded 1080p 2.35:1 presentation is presented at an extremely high bitrate (the disc is a BD-50) but sadly the source is one of Universal's famously less-than-optimal old masters. The image looks sharp, but it's the result of artificial sharpening. Apart from a few notable scratches, the image is clean and stable. Colors are good.
A significant amount of oomph present in the DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo audio. The action effects and music are bold and full without overwhelming the dialogue. Optional English subtitles are provided.
- Conducted over Zoom. One interesting revelation among many: before Fox and Woods, Kevin Kline and Gene Hackman were attached to the film in the main roles.
The Hard Way is not nearly as mind-blowing seen today as it was when I watched it repeatedly at age 11, but it holds up as a relatively clever and decidedly well-cast buddy cop flick. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.