Genre: Action Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.
Release Date: March 8th, 1991 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Badham Actors: Michael J. Fox, James Woods, Stephen Lang, Annnabella Sciorra, Luis Guzman, LL Cool J, Mary Mara, Delroy Lindo, Christina Ricci
he “Party Crasher” serial killer (Stephen Lang, in a pre-“Avatar” role that nicely compliments his berserk soldier motif) dials 911 to alert the cops that he’s about to strike again. The blonde-haired mass murderer loves the attention and insists upon attacking partygoers at packed nightclubs. Meanwhile, New York Detective John Moss (James Woods) and his timid partner Benny Pooley (Luis Guzman) try to stop him, but for the fourth time, they are unable to do so. Moss is understandably miffed; Woods has no difficulty portraying that agitation with great consistency. And just as Moss is an incredibly foul-mouthed, hotheaded, permanently infuriated, vigilante-minded, power-abusing man who shoots first and asks questions later, Woods seems right at home, somewhat inextricably linked to his alter ego.
On television, Moss appears to be the perfect macho badass on which to model a movie character. So the spoiled, immature, and filthy rich actor Nick Lang (Michael J. Fox), who plays Joe Gunn (who hates bad guys but loves bad women) in the movie “Smoking Gunn II” – a rip-off of James Bond and Indiana Jones that grosses billions but no longer satisfies the young, loose-cannon artist – wants to graduate to a manlier role. His sights are set on the part of Ray Casanov, a hard-boiled cop with plenty of attitude. After spying real policeman Moss on the news, Lang uses his influences to set up a ride-along with the no-nonsense man as research for the part. Though Lang shows up at the station in disguise, spouting obscenities, and dressed in Rambo/Serpico-styled Vietnam-vet gear, he still sticks out like a sore thumb. And he couldn’t be less prepared for the gig, especially since Moss refuses to play babysitter and continues to work on the Party Crasher case, haphazardly dragging his naïve new partner into the mix.
The cast is actually rather impressive. Naturally, Delroy Lindo plays the angry police captain, a role obviously modeled after the corresponding parts in “Lethal Weapon” and “Beverly Hills Cop”; Luis Guzman is the mild-mannered, by-the-books friend; LL Cool J is the wise-cracking associate who dishes out jokes at Moss’ expense; Annabella Sciorra is the girlfriend hopeful; a very young Christina Ricci is the daughter; and even Lewis Black and Mos Def have brief appearances. Michael J. Fox is ideal as the egotistical, idiotic actor, arriving straight from the success of the “Back to the Future” trilogy to portray a slightly less clean cut character than fans are used to. Similarly, James Woods isn’t the usual action hero lead, but he’s nevertheless convincing as a bitter, nasty, suicidal man with a penchant for nabbing crooks, even if it means destruction of public property and the endangerment of everyone around him. The part is something of an extension of his turn in 1988’s “Cop.”
Unfortunately, the lack of a typical, big movie star prevents “The Hard Way” from making much of an impression on the action comedy genre, instead appearing like a breezy derivation. The formula of pairing a seasoned, serious, violent, tough-guy with a goofy, inexperienced youngster has been done before, yet there’s still something humorous about it. The contrast is funny, John’s mental breaking down by the annoying newbie is hilarious, and Fox’s spoofing of method actors is hysterical. The comedic situations are actually superbly executed, with mistaken identities, bad manners, reversed roles, and amusing dialogue.
The major fault with “The Hard Way,” however, is its focus on the buddy cop routine, which takes away from the credibility of Moss’ heavy-hitting police work, detrimentally slowing the pace. It’s more comedy than action, despite well-earned laughs, hindering the effectiveness of dramatic set pieces. The semi-final showdown in a movie theater is one particular grandiose sequence, thrillingly mimicking the “Smoking Gunn” movie playing in the background as Moss engages in a deadly shootout with the Party Crasher (the actual finale is inside and on top of a giant Michael J. Fox face, like a marriage between the famous Statue of Liberty moment in “Remo Williams” and the tussle atop Mt. Rushmore in “North by Northwest”). The mocking of stereotypical action movie moments is particularly interesting, since “The Hard Way” creates a sense of self-awareness and movie-within-a-movie gimmicks, partially excusing the hokiness and jests that don’t go over smoothly – and the darker elements that occasionally clash with the silliness.
– Mike Massie