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Partnering up James Wood’s angriest cop in New York with Michael J. Fox’s intensely self-centred Hollywood star in a self-aware buddy comedy cop thriller, The Hard Way was ahead of its time.Director John Badham’s 1991 production didn’t fare too well – and the proposed sequel, The Harder Way, which would have seen Wood’s angry NY Lieutenant venture to LA for more witty thrills on Fox’s Hollywood star’s home territory, ended up getting ditched. But it was arguably ahead of its time, not wholly unlike a number of similar self-aware projects of the era, like Schwarzenegger’s The Last Action Hero. Badham had previously given us the excellent police helicopter thriller Blue Thunder – which had its own witty odd-couple camaraderie at its heart – and had struck gold with a similar action-comedy formula in the Gibson/Goldie Hawn vehicle Bird On a Wire, but The Hard Way, whilst successful, wasn’t quite the hit people expected from the star of Back to the Future. Nor was it quite the film they wanted from him.Ironically, Fox had spent much of this part of his career striving to be taken seriously, with his drug addict in Bright Lights, Big City and disillusioned Vietnam grunt in De Palma’s Casualties of War overshadowed by a litany of lightweight roles, some of which remain his defining features. The Hard Way afforded him an unusual opportunity to play an actor pretending to be a cop in order to be taken more seriously in Hollywood, and whilst he still gets a fair amount of outright comic moments, the sharper wit – and harder rating – distinguish this from his normal comedic fare. And James Woods – known for his gruff, hard-edged performances, with their own acerbic, swear-laden wit – enjoyed his own intentionally exaggerated self-portrayal. The two shared great chemistry, and taken with that knowing wink, the end result works surprisingly well.
Picture QualityThe Hard Way hits UK Region Free Blu-ray courtesy of Universal, who provide a largely excellent video presentation which promotes the movie in easily the best shape it’s been in over the last quarter of a century. Framed in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 widescreen, the 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition rendition may not quite stand up opposite those from modern productions, but it’s everything we really want from a catalogue title made in the early nineties.
It may not be remastered in Ultra HD 4K with bells on it, but this is easily the best that this movie has looked in decades.
Detail remains excellent throughout, with close-ups showcasing skin textures and layering – no signs of pasty, plastic faces here – and every hair, every line, every bit of clothing texture given room to breathe. The colour scheme is lovingly authentic – for the period – without too many vibrant primaries, but still healthy skin tones and natural, largely city-scape, background colours. It’s also nice to see a film which hasn’t been given the cool blue treatment, or the jaundiced yellow style, which seem to be the only two choices for style these days.
The strong layer of natural grain offers reassurance that DNR and other digital tinkering have been kept to a minimum. All that said, of course there are flaws: the darker sequences struggle to give perfectly resolved blacks and to provide shadow detail without any crush, whilst even a few daytime shots – not whole scenes, but certainly shots – like when they go to get a hot dog, see the grain level fluctuate and detail, softness and image integrity go right out of the window. They’re the exceptions to the norm, however, and for the most part this is a fantastic video presentation – exactly what you’d want from a mid-range 1991 buddy-buddy comedy thriller which probably most didn’t think would even make it on to Blu-ray in the first place.
On the aural front the accompanying DTS-HD MA 2.0 track isn’t quite as impressive as the video, but is still a solid offering.
It’s hard to fault the lossless track in its presentation of the already-limited material; disseminating clear and coherent dialogue, reasonably decent – for the period, at least – effects and a marginally underwhelming but nevertheless nominally effective score from longtime John Badham collaborator Arthur B. Rubenstein (indeed, he scored few movies beyond those by the director, although it’s hard to fault his synth-tastic work on Blue Thunder) with as much punch as it can muster across the restricted array. Some of the setpieces have more punch than you’d expect – and, much with the video – it’s hard to deny that this is probably the best we’ve heard the movie sounding in decades, so with that in mind, you can’t find fault with what Universal have delivered for this catalogue title.
Blu-ray VerdictShining a light on Hollywood clichés whilst playing to them; revelling in the outlandish stunts and set-pieces that define the genre, and delivering equal parts predictable thrills and unpredictable laughs, the unlikely – but welcome – pairing of Michael J. Fox and James Woods, both deliciously sending up their own respective trademark personas, was likely ahead of its time. These days, it obviously feels worn by the near quarter-century that has passed, but there’s plenty to enjoy in this smart, atypical buddy-buddy cop thriller. For fans of everything from Midnight Run to Lethal Weapon; from 48 Hours to The Last Action Hero (with maybe even a little Kindergarten Cop thrown into the mix), this is one of those rare action comedies that got the blend right, back in the day when they knew just how to.
Back when they knew how to do action and comedy without having to be defined as just one or the other.
This Region Free release of The Hard Way from Universal promotes the movie in the best shape it's looked in decades, with great video and strong audio, let down only by a complete lack of extras. Still fans should have no hesitation in picking this up, and newcomers interested in checking out a similar flick to any of those listed above should definitely consider taking a look - it may even be worth a blind buy depending how much time you have for the always-great James Woods, and for Michael J. Fox making the most of being paired opposite him.
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