The Hard Way at 30: An Underrated 90s Action Comedy

Between 1985 and 1990, these were the few crucial years that made Michael J. Fox of TV’s Family Ties a breakout star. Sitting on top of the list was, of course, the highly-successful Back to the Future trilogy followed by Teen Wolf (1985) and to a certain extent, the well-reviewed Casualties of War.

By the end of 1990 after Back to the Future Part III, Fox’s movie-star status is on the roll. Then came 1991 where he starred alongside James Woods in John Badham’s The Hard Way.

On paper, it looks like a hit-in-the-making with Fox playing a Hollywood action star named Nick Lang, who’s been enjoying tremendous success, thanks to his Indiana Jones-like Smoking Gunn franchise. However, Nick wants to be taken seriously as an actor and one day after he saw footage of the tough NYPD cop John Moss (James Woods) on TV, he decided to be like him. This includes everything from following him everywhere he goes to studying every single detail he needs to know so he can use the experience to secure a leading-cop role for an upcoming movie.

Moss, on the other hand, isn’t too pleased when he learns his superior officer (Delroy Lindo’s Captain Brix) wants him to babysit Lang. Moss, who is putting off the case from investigating the notorious serial killer nicknamed Party Crasher (Stephen Lang), has no choice but to put up with Lang. As Lang tags along with him over the next few days while on the job, Moss continues his unofficial investigation to track down Party Crasher’s whereabouts, which in turn, putting both of them in danger.

James Woods and Michael J. Fox in "The Hard Way" (1991)

The high-concept premise about a mismatched duo between a tough cop and a Hollywood action star does sound like a lot of fun. And it sure did, especially the spot-on chemistry between Fox and Woods. Fox’s comedic skill is put into good use here, notably in a scene where he pretends to be Moss’ girlfriend Susan (Annabella Sciorra) as he teaches him how to talk to a woman. Woods delivers a perfect foil here and he’s pretty good playing a disgruntled, tough-cop role. Stephen Lang’s antagonist turn as Party Crasher may have been a bit over-the-top but at least he pulls off the role in an entertaining way possible.

John Badham is no stranger to directing action comedies, given his past experiences in Stakeout (1987) and Bird on a Wire (1990). He does a good job giving us both worthwhile comedy and action moments, with the latter’s well-executed nighttime chase sequence deserves mention here.

The Hard Way barely lags behind as Badham’s efficient direction helps to keep the movie moving at a brisk pace. And yet, the movie barely scratched the surface in terms of its domestic box office performance, earning a paltry US$25.8 million (it opened in the No. 3 spots below The Silence of the Lambs and New Jack City). While it did rake a worldwide total of US$65.6 million against a US$24 million budget, it’s far from the big success that Universal hoped to be.

A scene from "The Hard Way" (1991)

Perhaps it has to do with the genre fatigue that audiences at the time have gotten tired of the same old buddy-cop formula, even though The Hard Way proves to be an above-average effort. The 1980s and 90s era were already full of them (read: oversaturation) coming out from Hollywood’s assembly line. Prior to the release of The Hard Way, Hollywood has seen various buddy-cop movies churning out for better or worse with the likes of 48 Hrs., Another 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, Red Heat, Tango & Cash and The Rookie.

It’s a shame that The Hard Way got lost in the shuffle at the time of its release and became among the forgotten ones unlike those, say, the ever-enduring Lethal Weapon movies. If you have yet to check out The Hard Way until now, do yourself a favour and stream this one.