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The Nostalgia Files: ‘The Hard Way’ (1991)

The Nostalgia Files: ‘The Hard Way’ (1991)

The_hard_way_poster[1]The Hard Way

Written by Daniel Pyne and Lem Dobbs

Directed by John Badham

USA, 1991

Thanks to the popularity of Lethan Weapon, the action comedy genre thrived in the 1980s and 1990s. The genre combines fast paced thrills and violence with witty one-liners and often ridiculous comedic scenarios. For some reason, the 80s were a veritable breeding ground for many of these types of films and the trend continued well into the 90s. For instance, 1991 saw the release of a movie that pretty much turned the genre on its head. That film is the buddy cop adventure The Hard Way and it is not only a smart action thrill ride with buckets of fresh humor but also a smart commentary on real life police work and method acting.

Directed by John Badham (WarGames, Saturday Night Fever, Short Circuit), The Hard Way pretty much has it all. It focuses on two very different characters who are thrust into a situation that drips with brilliant comedy. John Moss (James Woods) is a rough around the edges New York City police detective. He is in pursuit of “The Party Crasher” (Stephen Lang), a highly intelligent and highly psychotic serial killer who has a passion for strategy-based games, not to mention custom-made handguns. Enter Nick Lang (Michael J. Fox), a spoiled young Hollywood actor who desires to “grow up” in his roles. He plays characters that are not only cartoonish but quite unbelievable (i.e. Joe Gunn in the film within a film Smoking Gunn series). Lang hopes to approach his next role with realism and grit so he arranges to become Moss’ partner and get shadowed by an actual police officer. This plan can go so wrong so fast but Lang doesn’t care. He just wants to breathe, eat and sleep like a real cop. Along the way, Lang gets under Moss’ skin but work together to attempt to stop The Party Crasher.

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With a premise like it is easy to see why The Hard Way is considered a cult classic. It features two very strong performances from Woods and Fox. The action sequences are pretty intense as well. There is great self-referential humor scattered throughout and the satire is fresh and on point. Fox had just come off of the Back to the Future films and he was hoping to branch out into other roles, extending his very likable and boyish persona. The Hard Way was an appropriate choice for the then 29 year-old star. It was rated R, so he had a chance to spread his wings a little bit and use profanity and engage in violent action sequences. Woods is a little more well-versed in gritty action, so The Hard Way was also an appropriate choice for the offbeat actor.


With the two leads constantly going at it and providing much of the film’s humor and conflict, audiences often seem to overlook the very strong supporting cast. Avatar’s Stephen Lang is piercing as an eccentric murderer known as “The Party Crasher”. We know little about the character but what we do know is that he has bleached blonde hair, a muscular physique and an obsession with Moss. In what brief scene, we get a glimpse into The Party Crasher’s home. He wears green facial cream, chews bubble gum and plays chess on a very dated personal computer. This brief moment sums up The Party Crasher and shows us just how bizarre and unpredictable he can be.

The rest of the cast in The Hard Way is basically a who’s who of Hollywood B-listers. Delroy Lindo plays a police captain with a very funny adoration for Lang. Luis Guzman and LL Cool J plays fellow police officers who assist Moss in his hunt for The Party Crasher and they provide some good yucks along the way. Annabella Sciorra plays Moss’ girlfriend and their relationship is rocky due to Moss’ complete and utter dedication to his job. There is a subplot of him not being “emotionally available” and this serves as an adequate though sometimes cliché plot device, not to mention Christina Ricci playing Sciorra’s daughter adding to the drama. Even Penny Marshall and Kathy Najimy make appearances as Lang’s agent and personal assistant respectively. With such a colorful cast, The Hard Way ranks high on the fun-o-meter. Each actor brings their own style and flavor to the film, making for one hell of a fun ride.

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1991 was a special year for action films. Though far superior forays into the genre like Terminator 2: Judgment Day reined supreme, smaller flicks like The Hard Way blended blood and tension with the light-hearted nature of the buddy cop subgenre. For some reason, this hybrid was excellent at bringing in audiences. If a killer is on the loose and you’re just focused on catching said killer, moments of levity are more than necessary. Comedy is perfect for this. With jokes and humor peppered throughout an action film, the audience has a chance to breathe and to decompress a bit until the next tense action sequence raises their heartbeat. 1987’s Lethal Weapon and its plethora of sequels established this and The Hard Way follows in this pattern. The hardboiled detective and the goofy sidekick combo have been a staple of crime films for decades now and so far, the formula has been a successful one.


If you are a fan of Woods or Fox or action-comedies in general, then The Hard Way won’t disappoint you. Sure it’s got some clichés and some over-the-top action sequences but that’s the point! With all of its ridiculousness and quirky dialogue, this is a film with one mission: to entertain. All of the elements to do so are in place and with its 111-minute runtime, it is the perfect length, not too long and not too short. The chemistry (or conflict) between Woods and Fox is sensational and The Party Crasher makes for a rather interesting and rather unique villain. Badham’s direction also needs to be commended because the man certainly knows what he’s doing behind the camera. The Hard Way is often overlooked as an early 90s B-actioner but it is really more than that. It is a prime example of two strong personalities clashing and also a commentary on many Hollywood tropes as well as a seemingly honest interpretation of what police work is all about.

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