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The Hard Way
1991 - R - 111 Mins.
Director: John Badham
Written By: Lem Dobbs
Starring: Michael J. Fox, James Woods, Christina Ricci, Luis Guzman, Stephen Lang
Review by: John Ulmer
Nick Lang: Hey, look at this; they've got my billboard across the street.
John Moss: Good, you'll be sleeping close to the one you love.

You probably wouldn't expect to see "The Hard Way" (1991) on any critic's greatest movies list. But that's fine, because it exists on my favorite movies list as a personal favorite, a real treat in my opinion. It has two of the most likable screen veterans in one of the most likable cop-buddy films of all time, a genre often consisting of quite awful little films.

"Lethal Weapon" (also on my favorites list) may have been the founding father of the cop-buddy formula, perfecting the technique and everything near it, but "The Hard Way" has a little twist of its own along the way. It features Michael J. Fox as Nick Lang, a hotshot Hollywood megastar who wants to prepare for his upcoming role as a cop by studying real cop John Moss (James Woods), who has neither the time nor the patience to put up with Lang's easy-to-please misdemeaner.

This is the basic layout of the plot, which may sound pretty basic, but the film's unmistakable energy and wit is instantly noticeable. I saw "The Hard Way" on network television late one night and it completely blew me away with its love of its characters and their outcomes. I hadn't exactly expected such an excellent presentation of the misused, overused genre.

Its strongest trait is its two extremely likable leads and the messes and arguments they get into. Imagine "Lethal Weapon" having a crossbreed with "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," and you've got yourself a pretty good picture of this film. Granted, it's not as good as either film, but it's one of the best buddy films I've ever seen in my experience as a filmgoer and film critic.

Michael J. Fox is one of the most likable personalities in film history, and James Woods is one of the most remarkable. Both can act, and both have strong screen presences, and both have special traits of their own. Fox can easily play the Sweet Guy; Woods can play the Tough Guy. His role in Sergio Leone's final epic, "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984), was extraordinary. Fox's role as young Marty McFly in "Back to the Future" (1985) was simply excellent.

And so it comes as no real surprise, I guess, that their combined efforts are so good. It works because of its cast, not because of its script. When I saw the front cover of this box at my local video store, I thought I knew everything about it: Fox was the smart-aleck cop, Woods was the veteran who considered him a major pain in the butt. I was only partially right, because Fox's character is much more likable than the typical buddy with a big mouth. (Sorry, Eddie.)

I've been a big fan of Michael J. Fox's since his role as Alex Keaton in TV's "Family Ties." But it was in "Back to the Future" that he first displayed his knack for real acting and frantic, frenetic comedy. I can't think of a single bad film he has made, simply because every film he makes he brings a sort of likable screen charisma to, making the film better than it would ever be without him. Even "Teen Wolf" was enjoyable because of Fox.

Same for James Woods, who repaired with Fox in last year's "Stuart Little 2," although only through animation form. Woods is one of the screen's great underrated veteran actors, with an impressive resume and an impressive range of talent. He's sort of like Willem Dafoe in a way -- two great, great actors with great, great talent who haven't resorted to commercial fame. (And probably on purpose, too.)

The director of "The Hard Way," John Badham, has a clear hold on how to make scene progression work and how to use his characters in the precisely correct manner. Too bad he tries to outplay them with big stunt rigs at the end of the film. The climatic finale is a bit preposterous and silly, but by that time we are having so much fun, and loving the characters so much, it really doesn't matter how over the top the film gets. It takes some kind of wonder to do that.
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

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