Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Regret Watch: The Hard Way (1991)

Watched:  05/07/2018
Viewing:  First
Format:  DVD sent by JimD
Decade:  1990's.  So very early 1990's.

The trend so far for 2018 is me watching movies other people put in front of me.  Whether it's watching whatever is served up on TCM's "Noir Alley" by Eddie Muller, what my collaborators want to watch for a podcast, or - in this case - The Hard Way from 1991.

A couple of weeks back I watched a movie from 1943 called The Hard Way, a backstage melodrama featuring Signal Watch favorite Ida Lupino.  More than one of you asked me if I'd seen the 1991 Michael J Fox starring feature of the same name, and, no... I had not.  I did look it up, and remembered the film from the posters and commercials and it wasn't too hard to pin down why I didn't see it back then.  And before you ask - there is no connection whatsoever between the Lupino film and this thing.

Flashforward about a week and I get a package at my door, open it, and sure enough... once again Jim D has sent me a movie I had absolutely no intention of watching and told him several times I did not want to see.  So, I'm now the proud owner of a copy of The Hard Way starring James Woods and Michael J. Fox.

So, let's talk about the movie, 1991, and why I didn't see it.  Because I did watch this dumb movie and I have opinions.

Unpopular opinion:  I didn't like Michael J. Fox until Spin City.  In fact, I actively disliked Michael J. Fox as an actor, and once the Back to the Future movies, which I'm only lukewarm on, were done, I figured I was done with him.  I'd given him a chance in a handful of non- Family Ties and BTTF projects, including Teen Wolf and The Secret of My Success, and I didn't particularly like Teen Wolf (which is oddly far more frozen in my mind than I can account for), and mostly only liked The Secret of My Success because I was 12 and it had Helen Slater.

Michael J. Fox's acting range was pretty much... non-existent.  That's not a problem, exactly, for a character actor - but...  As an adult watching him, he now strikes me as someone who had a sort of schtick he did as a child actor and he stuck to it whether it was the right choice or not for the rest of his career.  And it worked.  I want to word this carefully and sensitively, because I am aware he's now dealing with Parkinson's, and whether I liked his shows and movies or not, he's a human and reportedly one of the good guys - but... dude never stops moving when he's on camera.  And it sucks.   He's alternately mugging or frantically flailing about, delivering everything in the same whiny voice, and it seems only when he was older in Spin City that I started to see some of what other people liked about him because he slowed the hell down.  But before that - he was a one-trick actor who was as predictable as the sunrise, and I wasn't a fan of that trick going back to BTTF.

Some people don't like Paul Rudd.  I don't like Michael J. Fox.

So - yeah, in 1991 16 year old me, with a 1983 Honda Accord, a driver's license, some loose cash and a pick of movies, was not going to choose a Michael J. Fox movie.

That year also included a lot of other movies - all of which I saw in the theater, many more than once.  Here is a partial list

  • Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • The Rocketeer
  • City Slickers (is that right?  That feels more like a 1987 movie)
  • Hot Shots
  • Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey
  • What About Bob?
  • Naked Gun 2 1/2
  • Thelma and Louise
  • Point Break
  • Drop Dead Fred
  • The Commitments
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Addams Family
  • The Last Boy Scout
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Soap Dish
  • The Fisher King
  • My Girl
  • - honestly I saw a ton of movies in the theater back then.  It was super cheap and I just realized how long this list is about to get if I list everything I saw so I'm stopping

So I wasn't not going to the movies.

But something about what was going on with cop movies - much of which is lampooned and discussed and played off in Last Action Hero - wasn't really working for me.  I even saw Last Boy Scout under duress.  I didn't *care* about "what if Michael J. Fox wanted to meet a tough New York cop and be his partner?"  Nothing about that appealed to me.

In 2018 - the casting of Woods as a tough-guy cop seems kind of weird, I'll be honest.  I know Woods' career was a sort of leading-man-adjacent trajectory, and he was considered a good actor in his heyday - and despite my distaste for how he expresses his politics and the #MeToo allegations leveled against him, I do remember the context in which Woods was a guy people kinda liked at one point, and took him more seriously as an actor than as a star, exactly.  But tough, New York homicide cop?  It's a weird fit.  Sleazy lawyer - that I buy.

So, no, I haven't been feeling for the past 27 years like I really missed something.

Probably before, but definitely after Lethal Weapon we had plenty of mismatched cop stories, where the two cops, in bringing down usually a serial killer or drug dealer, would come to understand one another and appreciate each other's polar opposite personalities and methodologies.  Heck, it most likely started with Beverly Hills Cop.

What Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop both did was actually do a pretty good job of matching the conflicting tones of comedy with a straight police drama that usually had an action-packed and Rated-R ending in the ultraviolent 1980's style we expected of cop stories at the theater.  Lots of exploding squibs, uzis, breaking glass and villains dying grotesquely with their eyes open.  But laughing, learning and sharing, too.

Directed by Jon Badham, who had a lot of interesting movies under his belt before moving to TV in the 1990's, the tone here, instead, jumps back and forth between what feels like typical Alex P Keaton stuff and a run of the mill Rated-R serial killer cop flick.  Fox and Woods, when not sharing the screen, seem like they're in two separate movies - and that tonal swinging - which probably sounded great on paper - instead feels like Fox was able to rewrite his pages and dialog and make a boring late-80's/ early-90's comedy, and Woods thought somehow whatever he was doing as a tough-guy cop would have comedic value.

Honestly, I'm not sure I cracked so much as a smile during this movie.  Maybe when it finally, finally ended.  But it wasn't funny.  Comedic things occurred, but it doesn't work.  And the action is so hammy and forced... it feels like a lampoon of these types of movies, but it's not.  They're serious.

It has one scene that probably got laughs in 1991 but now plays like an SNL sketch that would be cut for time, misogyny and homophobia.  And lots of signs that Woods' character is the kind of cop who shoots little kids with toy guns and doesn't feel bad about it.  Also - his intro scene is one of the worst intros to a character I can think of in a movie I've seen in the last ten years.  It just sucks and it makes me sad that this was probably a well-liked script in Hollywood during the era.  Maybe we're better off now that everything is a Marvel movie or twee Oscar Bait.

By the way - Does anyone really miss the fake-out ending from this era - where they think they have the bad guy and then - nope - here's 15 more minutes of movie?  It didn't happen in every film, but here's a prime example of our story wrapping up - all the lessons have already been learned - or are close enough - but we have to have a ten minute fight on a huge model of Fox's face.

Oh, right.  The plot.

Michael J Fox plays an actor who is basically Michael J Fox, but for some reason in this world he's a sorta action hero actor?  He wants to be taken seriously and get the meaty roles.

James Woods is a tough guy cop who's trying to track down a serial killer called The Party Crasher (because he shows up at public events and clubs and then murders people who maybe committed a crime.  It is clearly a remnant of a different script.).  Woods almost has him, but The Party Crasher gets away.  A battered and pissed off Woods finds the press shoving a camera in his face and he swears at the camera which makes national news, which draws Fox's attention.

Wanting to get a specific role of a tough New York cop, he pulls strings at NY City Hall and in 24 hours is in NYC under a pseudonym, partnered with a furious James Woods.

Oddly the part of the movie that made the least sense to me was that Woods' character has been on two dates with Annabella Sciorra (who was having her moment at the time) and the two act like they've been dating for months.  What starts as a one-note joke about "this is a third date, I never get past the first!" somehow spins into two people who seem so desperate they're making a huge mistake.  And if I can be candid - I do not believe this world is fictionalized enough that Ms. Sciorra was really that hard up for a date especially with a guy who shows all the signs of a potential abuser.

Stuart and I were talking about the tone issue in movies from this era, and he pointed out that Badham also directed Bird on a Wire, which was advertised as a fun Goldie Hawn wacky lark or a movie and my memory of it as follows:  this isn't actually funny, but it's also not able to commit to being a full-blown action film.  And that weird space inbetween is where this movie is landing - and it's not a great way to spend 2 hours.

I'd more or less say the same for this movie.

Fox's schtick is intentionally grating here, evaporating the chance for joy in any of his scenes - and when things get real - it feels both unearned and out of place.  Meanwhile Woods is stuck in those scenes, and when he is trying to fight The Party Crasher, we wind up in our wacky comedy watching the father of a young girl get shot and then burned to death.  Which sorta kills the mood, John Badham.

Because Hollywood loves nothing so much as Hollywood - and because we kept having to say "post-modern" a lot when I entered film school, this movie does have a certain eye on it, like it knows it's utterly full of shit, but just shrugging and saying "look, everyone is getting paid".  It's ostensibly about the artifice of acting and movies versus the real world lives of cops.  Only it's absolutely not about that - because our cop learns to "act", Fox's knowledge of the three act structure points them to the finale of the movie, and we wind up in an unlikely battle royale at film's end on a giant outdoors advertisement that's the shape of Fox's face.

This feels like it's a post-modern comment on something.  Maybe.  It echoes Hitchcock, but with Michael J. Fox instead of, you know, our best Presidents.  I'm not sure we're supposed to like Fox by this point in the movie or not (I was firmly in the camp of only liking Annabella Sciorra at this juncture), and it just felt odd and tacked on.  I know the two were supposed to learn from each other, reality hits Hollywood, and if you carry the remainder...

I guess I have no idea if the movie makers had any sense of self-awareness and were actually trying to say something that would take a term paper to work through, or if the typical studio stuff of the era occurred, they scrapped their own whole premise of the "realism" of cop-life for a big, showy ending to try to keep the audience gasping.

And, of course, the movie concludes with the cops at the premier of Fox's new movie where he plays that hard-boiled cop repeating Woods' earlier dialog.  Because that is how movies worked in 1991.

And it explains a lot about the path we were all on that inevitably ended in The Last Action Hero.

Anyway - I watched the movie.  I hope everyone is happy. If you want a copy of The Hard Way, send me an email or tweet me.

and in conclusion...  Michael J. Fox has no Elvis in him.

LATE EDIT:  I am reminded that I forgot to mention the film debut of LL Cool J in this movie.  You can't really miss him because for some reason the opening and closing song to this movie is "Mama Said Knock You Out", which is a GREAT song (I mean that sincerely).  But it has nothing to do with the movie other than that Cool J shows up in about seven scenes as one of the cops from Woods's precinct.

He was actually good in Toys and went on to a great acting career.  I love LL Cool J.

I was also reminded I didn't mention "frog dogs" but that was because I missed a line somewhere and decided I didn't care enough to figure out if they were literally eating hotdogs made of frogs.  Sigh.  This @#$%ing movie.

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