31 January 2009

THE HARD WAY (Dir. John Badham, 1991, US)

If there was really such a thing as an eighties film maker then surely John Badham would epitomise such a stigma, ranking alongside other similarly mediocre studio directors like John Hughes and Richard Donner. It is not that they are particularly bad film makers, in fact compared to the likes of D J Caruso (I am very suspicious about the credibility of any director who has the initials D J in their name because it seems as though somebody in the marketing department could not be bothered coming up with anything remotely inventive; also 'Caruso' sends out uneasy signals to do with bloated opera singers) and Michael Bay, their body of work at least shows some consistency in terms of competent film making. Yet John Badham was such a mediocre film maker it is difficult to determine who in fact should be credited with transforming a film like 'The Hard Way' into somewhat of a cult film that has literally been swept away by the deluge of terrible eighties film making. 'The Hard Way' should be looked at more closely today as it's influence has been dismissed and continues to be by critics who simply do not want to contemplate the thought that a squeaky clean all American actor like Michael J Fox may actually have been a reasonably good comic actor. Perhaps the very nature of the action comedy makes it an easy and justifiable target for film critics today especially when you consider how impossible it is to bring comedy and action elements together in one film and actually make them work. Recent films like 'Fast and the Furious' and 'Rush Hour' have reworked the action comedy formula in the age of high concept, but none of the genuinely inventive humour that made films like 'Beverly Hills Cop', 'Lethal Weapon' and 'The Hard Way' so distinct is present in banal narratives largely motivated by ridiculously trite characterisation and over emphasis on dangerous stunts.

Badham came to prominence with his 1977 John Travolta hit film 'Saturday Night Fever' but his career after this never showed any kind of credibility and he effectively became a reliable commercial film maker, directing unmemorable films like 'War Games', 'Stakeout' and 'Nick of Time'. I am not sure if it is possible to label Badham as an auteur because the films he made were in large part determined by the script. The sign of a good director and auteur is one who can take a script and use it to deal with their personal thematic motifs. So it is interesting to note that the writer of 'The Hard Way' was Lem Dobbs, a scriptwriter who had previously enjoyed success with 'Romancing the Stone' and would later collaborate with Steven Soderbergh on the independent crime noir 'The Limey'. The other factor that elevates 'The Hard Way' out from the genre trappings of the action comedy and the dubious directorial reputation of Badham is the actor, James Woods. Revisiting 'The Hard Way' after a number of years has made me appreciate the brilliance of Dobb's exciting and hugely influential screenplay. Everything that works about this film is down to the writing of Dobbs. He really is the lynchpin in this production. Were it not for the script then I strongly doubt I would be watching this film again and which probably explains why James Woods performance as the embittered, cynical and foul mouthed police detective John Moss is such a memorable one.

The film also takes a hilarious swipe at the pretentiousness of Hollywood film making by ridiculing and deconstructing the overpaid actor, Nick Lang, played brilliantly by Michael J Fox. What doesn't work and continues to annoy is the presence of L L Cool J who crops in the film intermittently as an obnoxious token black police detective. Though the film was released in 1991, for me 'The Hard Way' is very much an eighties film and like another similarly hilarious action comedy, 'Midnight Run', what makes these films work today is the banter, interplay and humour generated by the lead actors. And yes this is James Woods film, simply because he steals the show by getting the opportunity to utter the best of the lines in his typically deadpan manner. James Woods could have been one of the great American actors but poor script choices and unsound advice from people around him like his agent who famously turned away a role for Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs' made his career (apart from the eighties) follow a conventional trajectory that sadly left many remarking at his eventual embarkation to television land. On a side note, the 1st unit director is none other than 'Rob Cohen' who would go on to forge a career in Hollywood by making trashy films such as the absurdly titled 'XXX'.

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