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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “The Hard Way” (1991) – The 30th Anniversary

By 1991, the buddy cop and mis matched partner set-up had already taken off and had become a profitable, but a formula that was slowly fizzing out. Surely the most popular of them were 1987’s “Lethal Weapon”, that went on to spawn three sequels. Then there was “48 Hours”, “Running Scared”, “Tango & Cash”, “Midnight Run” and “The Last Boy Scout” just to name a few. 

Riding on the high of the buddy cop format was the newest entry of the genre called “The Hard Way”. Released in 1991, but felt as if it was a part of the previously mentioned slate of 80s films. The idea behind the film had been done before seeing a civilian team up with a hard nosed cop whose on the “big case”. However, the twist here is that Michael J Fox, plays a popular movie star who is fed up of playing cartoon characters in genre films such as his latest release, “Smoking Gunn II”. He wants to be considered for more serious roles, though he never gets the call. When Nick sees footage of James Woods’ detective on TV, he decides he’s the exact man he needs to properly get inside the head of a police officer.

“The Hard Way” was directed and produced by John Badham, whose breakthrough credit came from directing the 1977 Oscar nominee “Saturday Night Fever”. Badham followed it up by giving us fan favorite films including: “WarGames”, “Short Circuit” and “Stakeout”.

It started in January 1988, when it was announced that “Three Men & A Baby” and “Cheers” actor, Ted Danson would star in “The Hard Way” as the role of Michael J Fox’s actor character Nick Lang. “The Hard Way” was to be released by Universal Pictures and under the direction of filmmaker Arthur Hiller (“Silver Streak”, “The In-Laws”). Filming was to begin in New York City in May 1988. However, Hiller had been replaced by director John Badham and Jack Nicholson was being courted to play the role of detective John Moss.

Badham who had struck a multi-picture deal with Universal Pictures, that included “The Hard Way” which had been given a budget of $20 million to work with. Production was scheduled to begin shooting in Chicago in 1989. “The Hard Way” was the first picture produced for Universal under the Badham and Cohen Group banner. The partnership Badham had with Cohen, was with mega producer and future director Rob Cohen of “The Fast & The Furious”, “Daylight” and “Mummy Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor”. Associate producer DJ Caruso, also became a future filmmaker like producer Rob Cohen. Caruso went on to direct “Disturbia”, “Eagle Eye” and “Taking Lives”.

Various sources indicated that after talks with Jack Nicholson fell through, actors Kevin Kline and Gene Hackman had been tapped to star in the film, due to scheduling conflicts, neither actor could commit to the project. Badham had soon secured the interest of Michael J. Fox in the fall of 1988, although Fox was obligated to first complete the “Back to the Future” sequels (filmed back to back in 1989 and 1990). With “The Hard Way” being postponed, Badham started another project, the Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn action comedy called “Bird on a Wire” released in 1990.

Screenwriter Lem Dobbs (“The Score”) joined the filmmakers to rework Daniel Pyne’s (“Doc Hollywood”) script. While screenwriters Jeff Reno and Ron Osborne were credited for “contributing” to the screenplay. Producer Rob Cohen clarified the matter in an interview stating: “The original script was written by Lem Dobbs and then rewritten by Daniel Pyne. But because of Pyne’s obligation to another film, he was not available to do the final polish. Therefore Jeff Reno and Ron Osborne had ran the final leg of the race”. 

Cohen also acknowledged producer William Sackheim’s supervision of the writing process, before indicating that the Writers Guild of America would determine who gets the final credit. Ultimately, original screenwriter Lem Dobbs and television writer Michael Kozoll (“Hill Street Blues”) received “story” credit, with the screenplay credit given to Daniel Pyne and Lem Dobbs. Neither Reno nor Osborne received onscreen credit for their work. 

By the time principal photography began on May 21st 1990 in New York City, Michael J Fox who was officially signed on had a co-star in James Woods. The actor was well-prepared for his role as homicide detective John Moss, who like Fox in the movie had shadowed a New York Police Department veteran. The real life Lieutenant also consulted on elements of authenticity in the movie. One of the objections the Lieutenant had was the lack of diversity in the casting of the film’s New York City police squad and the roles were recast to include more people of color. 

Filming was originally scheduled for sixteen weeks. However, the addition of a second unit helped reduce the time spent in New York to thirteen weeks. Various neighborhoods, including the Upper West Side, East Village, Harlem, City Hall Park and Times Square, all served as filming locations. A giant billboard advertisement for “Smoking Gunn II”, one of Nick Lang’s feature films, was constructed above Times Square, where it remained for ten days, where it was reported to confuse and amusing tourists and city locals. Although end credits state that “The Hard Way” was shot entirely on location in New York City, production notes acknowledge that the scenes from Nick Lang’s pictures were filmed in a studio, to better emulate the look of a Hollywood action movie.

Mismatched cops are no rarity on the big screen, but the success of any buddy cop movie is the chemistry between it’s two stars. “The Hard Way” is no exception as the union of Michael J Fox and James Woods, deserve lots of credit. Woods had a long filmography by the time of “The Hard Way” being released. Woods made his acting debut starring in his first movie in 1971. Leading up to “The Hard Way”, Woods had starred in a handful of cult favorites, like: “Videodrome”, “Once Upon A Time In America”, “Salvador” and “Cop”. 

Woods as the grumpy, short tempered and tough as nails detective is brilliant, as he always is. The way James Woods spits out one liners, like “It’s Dickless Tracy”, “Why don’t you go tie your d*** in a knot”, among so many others are all borderline priceless. Some actors have a hard time in convincing the audience that they dislike the character they’re paired with on screen. But with James Woods, it’s never in question. In fact Woods himself said that his role in the film was one of his toughest. He found it difficult because his character had to constantly be angry with Michael J. Fox, who Woods had found to be very likeable in real life.

Playing off James Woods was the chipper and enthusiastic Michael J Fox as Nick Lang. Fox who was at the peak of his fame when he shot “The Hard Way”. In 1991, when “The Hard Way” was released is when Michael had found out he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and came only months prior to releasing his comedy “Doc Hollywood”. Fox became a household name, from his successful and Emmy winning run on the NBC sitcom “Family Ties”, which ended it’s seven season run in 1989. Fox also had been dominating the big screen with the “Back To The Future” trilogy, “Teen Wolf”, “Light Of Day”, “The Secret Of My Success”, “Bright Lights Big City” and “Casualties Of War”. His appearance in “The Hard Way” was part of a three picture deal that Fox had with Universal Pictures at the time, which included “For Love Or Money” and “Greedy”. None of his films would really ignite, the way the “Back To The Future” films did on the big screen. But his films always became a hit once they hit home video and are all considered treasures to his fans. Well….certainly to this fan. 

“The Hard Way” scores particularly when it comes to comedy and one of it’s finest examples, is when Fox’s Lang tries to teach Woods’ Moss how to talk to a woman. It’s a scene that still holds up really well and serves two purposes. It’s the first tangible sign that Lang can be of use to Moss and secondly, it’s a brilliant comedy double act. Michael J. Fox really doesn’t get enough credit for his skill with physical comedy and the moments he can subtlely pitch his comedic performances. 

“The Hard Way” has it’s share of an impressive supporting cast. Including: Luis Guzman, LL Cool J, Penny Marshall, Kathy Najimy, Delroy Lindo, Annabella Sciorra and Christina Ricci. As the films villain is Stephen Lang (“Don’t Breathe” and “Avatar”), who is known in the film as the Party Crasher. Lang’s “party crasher” isn’t brilliantly developed, but he’s a proper villain who is a maniacal madman that isn’t afraid to kill people and who likes to play mind games with Moss and Lang.

In spite of getting positive reviews on its original release, “The Hard Way” never really became a box office success. “The Hard Way” debuted at No. 3 behind “The Silence of the Lambs” and “New Jack City”, taking in just over $65 million from a $24 million budget. Unfortunately while the end could easily have been a take off for a sequel, we would not get to meet Moss and Lang again on the big screen. 

But then again at that time, the genre itself was changing. Aside from some “Lethal Weapon” sequels, the 80’s pumped out so many of them that the most successful days of the mismatched buddy cop action comedies were gone. The sad thing is that “The Hard Way”, is a far better film than its profile would suggest and seems to get forgotten in the midst of all of this. The genre did find a resurgence in 1999 with Jackie Chan’s “Rush Hour” trilogy. 

“The Hard Way” would only be available to own on DVD and VHS, while a lack of a Blu Ray release has been much in demand. The Blu Ray was finally released by Kino Lorber on October 6th 2020, that included the films theatrical trailer and an audio commentary with director John Badham, producer and second unit director Rob Cohen and movie critic Daniel Kremer. The film is also currently on streaming services for rent or purchase and on HBO Max for subscribers. 

John Badham knows how to make genre pictures and this is one of his best. The screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Lem Dobbs is clever and funny that provides James Woods with some genuinely funny vulgarities and Michael J. Fox who is able to showcase his physical comedy. Badham sprinkles in some inventive action set pieces. One of which involve a giant 3D billboard of Michael J. Fox’s face that manages to parody Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” substituting Times Square for Mt. Rushmore.

“The Hard Way” is fun, exciting, moves at a blistering pace, is consistently funny with comic energy and the energy of this movie is everything. It remains clear, that the chemistry between Woods and Fox plays a key role in cementing “The Hard Way‘s” success. “The Hard Way” fits snuggly into the “they don’t make them like they used to” territory.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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