The Hard Way

The Hard Way. Universal Pictures 1991.
The Hard Way. Universal Pictures 1991.

Before watching the movie:

One more Michael J. Fox movie from the set I found years ago, which I believe completes it. I previously covered For Love Or Money and Greedy, and now, finally, this one. Possibly the one I was most interested in, if I recall correctly.

Here we have a slick Hollywood actor shadowing a tough cop to research a role, much to the annoyance of said cop, who is played by James Woods. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything Woods has done in live action, but I’m quite fond of some of his voice performances, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him on camera.
After watching the movie:

Detective John Moss’s current case is the Party Crasher killer, and he’ll risk life and limb in order to bring him in or put him in the ground. Pampered movie star Nick Lang is reaping the benefits of starring in a multibillion dollar franchise but wants a “grown up” role as a mean streets detective. He sees Moss on television and immediately gets arrangements made to shadow him as the basis of his performance. Moss didn’t sign up for this. Worse, he’s pulled off the case and barred from doing pretty much anything at all dangerous in order to keep Lang safe. Moss keeps pursuing the killer anyway, just so long as his albatross will stay in the car. (He won’t.)

I found the pacing hard to anticipate. I felt like the story could have been told in under 90 minutes, but it goes for nearly two hours. Most of the time, an action comedy is a comedy that follows the beats of an action movie, but this one felt like an action movie and a comedy collided and didn’t quite blend. The second act in particular didn’t seem to gel. It divides its time between the B-plot about Moss’s relationship with his girlfriend, comedy that doesn’t quite fit the tone it’s trying to meet, and when it does work on the Party Crasher plot, it wanders closer to drama than I expected. As a result, it felt like time for the finale about the time the second act runs out of steam and gets things rolling again with a second-act turn that feels more like a second inciting action for the amount of energy it brings back. Then the third act begins with an action sequence that feels like it could be a climax except for the fact that there isn’t a single plot thread that’s resolved.

Stephen Lang threw himself wonderfully into the unhinged vigilante killer looking for an audience. The character seems to fit in either world: the streets of New York or Hollywood’s caricature of them, and Stephen Lang’s performance plays to that in a very watchable way. James Woods was less sarcastic than I was expecting, but fit the role very well. Michael J. Fox plays actors a lot, so it’s hard to appraise his performance playing an actor. We see a lot of him playing an actor acting here though, and I’m not sure if it’s him or just convention that’s responsible for the overacting Nick Lang does. The whole point of shadowing Moss was to learn how to play a “real person”, and then when we see him in the performances that result, he completely ignores all that gritty reality and plays it like Shakespeare. Again, it could be convention, because it’s quite common to overact when one is acting out acting.

Sometimes I feel overly prescriptive when I say that a film “should have done this” or “shouldn’t have done that”. However, I think in this movie there was a real missed opportunity to play themes and contrast the characters. I’d have liked to see both characters’ expertise put to use and in the end show the characters having learned skills from each other. However, in this case, the implication seems to be that Nick has no skills whatsoever because he has money to hire people with skills. On a few occasions, his understanding of psychology is helpful, but this never seems to relate to his own character arc. Meanwhile, Moss has a few occasions to act and is far more convincing than Nick is. And in the end, they don’t seem to have learned anything but to respect each other. They just charge into an action sequence without much thought to how their skillsets apply. Considering the cartoonish bent of the finale, it would be especially appropriate to make it a bit more explicit that this is closer to Nick’s domain than the rest of their partnership.

Looking at this film critically seems to have destroyed it even more than usual. As just an audience member, I quite enjoyed the comedy, the action, and the interplay between Nick and Moss. The gritty reality side seemed more realistic than is often the case, and the funniest parts were, while sometimes outside the range of tone I was expecting, still pretty good comedy. I’d call it something of an oddball, since I still think it’s less an action comedy and more an action movie and a comedy movie sharing celluloid, but both movies are a fun ride, and worth the wait.

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