Entry #10: The Hard Way
By Nathan Rabin
The Fractured Mirror is an ongoing column about movies about making movies.
The reputations and personas of Michael J. Fox and James Woods have gone in sharply different directions since they starred in the 1991 mismatched show-biz buddy cop action comedy The Hard Way. Fox’s battle with Parkinson’s has greatly limited his acting opportunities but the unusually beloved actor and philanthropist won a whole new level of respect and admiration from an already adoring public for his brave public struggle with a terrible disease as well as his charitable endeavors.
Woods’ reputation has traveled sharply in the opposite direction. The always outspoken and controversial actor, notorious for his bitter feud with The Boost co-star Sean Young and pummeling intensity, is as well-known these days for his rage-choked tweets about the political landscape as he is for his increasingly irrelevant acting career. Fox rose to fame as TV’s most lovable conservative. Woods acting career has floundered since he’s aggressively repositioned himself as a much less lovable public conservative.
In 2015 Woods won mocking headlines for suing an anonymous Twitter user for 10 million dollars for alleging that Woods snorts cocaine. It was the kind of delusional, angry gesture that both illustrates a profound misunderstanding of the way the world works and reinforces the notion that Woods is a humorless, reactionary, frothing-at-the-mouth loose cannon who can dish it out but can’t take it.
Woods’ hissy fit over an anonymous nobody randomly insulting him shows how thin-skinned he is. The first rule of the playground is that if someone has an irrational, crazily disproportionate over-reaction to a particular insult, then you seize upon that vulnerability and hit it hard with wild, sadistic, abandon. Woods’ insane over-reaction to some stranger insulting him on the internet over his ostensible lust for cocaine just signaled to every smart-ass on the internet that Woods secretly wanted to be accused of being a cocaine addict at every opportunity. It put a big old “Make fun of me for loving cocaine” sign on his back the internet could see but that he was oblivious to.
Yes, Woods and Fox were and are very different people and very different actors. That’s what makes them ideal for the mismatched buddy cop comedy that thrived in the 1980s and 1990s and is winked to regularly by movies like the 21 Jump Street franchise. The 1991 movie The Hard Way casts Woods and Fox to type as, respectively, John Moss, a tough-talking cop who lives on the edge and upsets his bosses with his unconventional ways but gets his man (in other words, a renegade cop like every single other renegade cop, ever) and Nick Lang, a tiny action movie superstar bored with his life and his career.
Nick wants to shake up his image and escape a never-ending gauntlet of formulaic sequels and play a role with real gravitas. So he’s able to sweet-talk his way into an unlikely gig shadowing the deeply resistant Moss, who has just been taken off a case involving a deranged serial killer known only as “The Party Crasher.”
The old cliche about serial killers is that neighbors invariably describe them as nice, normal people who kept to themselves, and seemed like the last people you’d ever expect to murder 40 Taco Bell workers as part of a deranged plan to build a wall of corpses around their farm. Well, as played by a giggling, vibrating, screaming Stephen Lang, The Party Crasher seems exactly like the kind of comically over-the-top crazy you’d naturally assume is some manner of deranged serial killer with an impressive body count and a bizarre obsession with a renegade cop.
The Party Crasher is such a preposterous cliche that he doesn’t just embrace chess as an all-purpose metaphor for his cat-and-mouse game with the cops, he also is seen playing a number of other games by himself in the kind of crazily excessive touch that would be funny in a 21 Jump Street movie but is played straight here.
That’s the big problem with The Hard Way. The action elements are overwhelmingly generic and stock, from the gruff-talking black captain with a surprisingly tender heart (Delroy Lindo, in the kind of role you expect Delroy Lindo to play) to Moss’ time-wasting romance with a pretty single mother played by Annabelle Sciorra to the Party Crasher’s strong contention that—I hope you’re sitting down because this is going to blow your mind—maybe the killer and the hero aren’t so different after all. What if they’re really just two sides of the same coin, each fighting evil in their own way? Those are the kinds of questions that make The Hard Way’s cop-movie mechanics arbitrary, overly familiar and underwhelming.
The mismatched buddy comedy The Hard Way reminds me of most is The Last Action Hero, right down to specific set-pieces and third acts that feel suspiciously similar. The film feels almost like a first draft of The Last Action Hero, with an equally intense awareness of its status as a movie-movie but without the fantasy or supernatural elements.
The difference is that the central action in The Last Action Hero is supposed to register as fake and artificial, because it is a film within a film. The Hard Way, however, asks us to be at least minimally invested in Moss and his hunt to bring down the Party Crasher as something that is at least nominally happening to real people, in the real world, and on that level it does not succeed. Moss always seems like an unimaginative buddy cop movie’s idea of a gritty cop rather than the real thing.
If the action is slick and mediocre, the comedy is more successful. As a leprechaun-sized thespian eager to prove himself as an actor, a temporary cop and a man, Fox is an utter delight. His almost childish adoration of a man who represents his ideal as both a man’s man and an exemplar of rugged authenticity is both hilarious and oddly touching and the two wildly different actors have some wonderful scenes together. These standout sequences include one where the movie star all too enthusiastically plays the girl in some romantic role-playing with the nervous Moss and another where the two men have an animated conversation outside a food cart despite both having mouths full of meat and bun.
Director John Badham previously helmed one of the all-time great New York movies with Saturday Night Fever and he knows how to give pre-Guliani New York a certain grit, albeit not in a way that disguises the film’s over-reliance on buddy cop movie clichés. But if the film’s many formulaic and dated elements can be frustrating and limiting, they can also be fun. L.L Cool J, for example, has a supporting role as another cop, but between his ever-present Kangol hat and a “Mama Said Knock You Out”-centric soundtrack, his appearance feels more like a weird plug for the then-resurgent L.L Cool J brand more than it does something organic to the film’s universe.
And because the film is so overly committed to its action movie machinations, Woods ends up getting more screen time than Fox despite giving the much less enjoyable performance. Woods is the one with the arbitrary romance (although it is neat to see a very young Christina Ricci as the daughter of his love interest) and the hackneyed public vendetta against the scenery-devouring bad guy, but it’s Fox who gets all the laughs and all the sympathy.
The Hard Way works best as a vehicle for Fox’s boyish charm and crack comic timing. It is unmistakably a product of its time and stands as an unusually pure, hackneyed representation of the then-red-hot mismatched buddy cop comedy. Playing the less central role allows Fox to steal the movie from his more heavyweight costar. A quarter century on what stands out most about The Hard Way is what a wonderful presence Fox was during his heyday and how he could elevate stock material into something that is woefully derivative but also intermittently fresh, fun and genuinely funny.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.