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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 meatier roles like that of a drug addict in Bright Lights, Big City, and a disillusioned Vietnam grunt in De Palma’s Casualties of War overshadowed by a litany of lightweight comedies, some of which still 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 – may have come across as somewhat jarring given the lighter roles you’d normally associate with Fox’s comic output.
Simultaneously James Woods – known for his gruff, hard-edged performances, which were normally not without their own acerbic, swear-laden wit – may have confused fans with his own intentionally exaggerated self-portrayal. As it happens, the two shared great chemistry, and taken with that knowing wink, the end result is surprisingly ahead of its time, shining 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.
Made back when they knew how to blend action and comedy without being defined by either.
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 dated 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, this is one of those rare action comedies that got the blend right, back in the day when they knew just how to.
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