The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Hard Way

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at THE HARD WAY!

the hard way banner, michael j fox, james woodsTHE STORY: Nick Lang (Michael J. Fox), a spoiled Hollywood action star, wants to change his image by taking on a hardboiled cop role. Deciding the only way he can convincingly win such a part is by experiencing the real thing, he talks his way into a gig shadowing a hard-living loner cop (James Woods) on the trail of a notorious hitman, The Party Crasher (Stephen Lang).

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Michael J. FoxJames WoodsStephen Lang. Directed by John Badham. 

the hard way, michael j fox, james woodsTHE HISTORY: In the early nineties, Michael J. Fox was at a crossroads in his career. “Family Ties” has recently ended its run, while in 89/90, he wrapped up the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy with back-to-back sequels, the third of which was widely considered a box office disappointment, grossing $88 million – a fair sum but far less than its predecessors (by contrast, II made $118 million, while the original made $210 million). His follow-up, DOC HOLLYWOOD (a great movie btw), made a solid $54 million, but clearly, the formula was drying up and his career needed a boost.

While too boyish to ever go into full action hero mode, somewhere along the way the decision was made to pair him up with director John Badham, who’d had great success in the action-comedy arena with STAKEOUT and BIRD ON A WIRE. The result was THE HARD WAY, which was a risky move for Fox at the time, being his first R-rated movie since BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY and his first foray into action. While ostensibly playing a comic role, that of the pampered actor being paired with a legit tough guy, in this case, James Woods (at the height of his popularity as a character actor), THE HARD WAY wound up being a relatively heavy-duty actioner in the vein of the LETHAL WEAPON sequels. Everyone expected a hit.

The Hard Way was released on the weekend of the ground invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. And you can't release a fucking comedy the weekend a war starts, believe me. So The Hard Way didn't do that well, and only because it was horrible timing, that's all. – James WoodsDen of Geek Interview

Sadly, THE HARD WAY only eked out $25 million at the box office, a meager sum for an action movie in those days, although it made enough of a cultural imprint a year or so later James Woods spoofed his role on “The Simpsons” when he decides to shadow Apu at the Kwik-E-Mart. It continued a downward spiral for Fox’s box office fortunes, although he’d bounce back in a big way with TV’s “Spin City” a few years later. For Badham, it also signaled a downturn in his career, with his follow-ups being the poorly received ANOTHER STAKEOUT, DROP ZONE and the underrated NICK OF TIME (he’s now a prolific TV director).

the hard way, michael j fox, james woodsWHY IT'S GREAT: THE HARD WAY, like most Michael J. Fox movies of the era, was something of a staple of my childhood. I remember watching it on my 10th birthday with my parents (who were slightly peeved at James Woods’s non-stop F-bombs) and then over-and-over in the years that followed. Back then, I loved the mix of comedy and action and while it wasn’t quite LETHAL WEAPON it was close enough to find itself in heavy rotation in my pantheon of VHS action flicks.

I loved John, and we got along great. And Michael Fox! He said 'what do you think of Jimmy Woods?' So I had these two guys sort of liking me as a comedy actor. We just had a ball doing it. It was so fucking much fun. I was working with people I really liked. And Michael Fox is just the greatest guy. It's funny. – James WoodsDen of Geek Interview

I’m also happy to say that THE HARD WAY has held up relatively well in recent years. While the premise is a bit hard to swallow, that Woods’s cop on the edge would be paired with a pampered A-lister, the two guys have terrific chemistry. It’s a great buddy cop movie, and Fox, in particular, seems to be having a whale of a time satirizing Hollywood tough guys (look for a cameo by the late Penny Marshall as his agent). I do have a slight problem with Woods’s character here, with him portrayed as a near sociopath throughout, with his scheme to get rid of Fox by making it look like he killed a bystander so evil not only would he lose his badge in the real world, but he would have faced probably a decade or so of jail time. But, alas – Hollywood.

the hard way, stephen langStill, THE HARD WAY is an excellent piece of entertainment. Fox and Woods are great, while a young LL Cool J (“Mama Said Knock You Out” is a big part of the soundtrack), Annabella Sciorra and Delroy Lindo (as the hilariously star-struck police chief) head-up the supporting cast. The movie is all but stolen by Stephen Lang, who plays one of my favorite action movie villains from the era, a bleached-blond psycho hitman named “The Party Crasher”. Not only is he a credible physical threat for the two, but Lang throws himself into the part with full-force and had the film been a hit I think he would have been an action baddie staple throughout the nineties.

BEST SCENE: There are so many great scenes here, including a great bit where Fox takes on The Party Crasher in a crazed car hijacking. That said, I love it when Hollywood sends up their own action movies, and this fake trailer for Fox’s character, Nick Lang’s, “Smoking Gun” series hits all the right notes for me.

SEE IT: THE HARD WAY is available on Blu-ray, DVD, iTunes, etc.

the hard way, james woods

PARTING PARTING SHOT: I really miss the buddy comedy, with the genre essentially being limited to TV nowadays. It seems like a genre that could pay off for a streamer like Netflix, and if people want to know how to ace the formula, THE HARD WAY is worth taking a look at. Is it dated? Sure – but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun twenty-eight (!) years later.

the hard way poster, michael j fox, james woods


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.