The Hard Way (1991): The Best Movie You Never Saw

We take a look back at the underappreciated 1991 buddy cop classic, The Hard Way, starring Michael J. Fox and James Woods.

Last Updated on May 28, 2024

The 80s and 90s were a great time for character actors. Guys like Gene Hackman, Brian Dennehy, Christopher Walken, John Lithgow, Morgan Freeman and many others occupied this really interesting place where they could lead their own movies and be just as comfortable playing supporting roles – whether large or small – in bigger films without worrying about things legit movie stars have to, such as bankability. Of that era, one of the biggest character actors was no doubt the fast-talking James Woods. In the eighties, his star rose thanks to movies like Videodrome, Salvador, True Believer and many others. While he never became a legit box office superstar, he was in that niche place where he could lead his own movies, such as the underrated Best Seller, while also playing plum supporting roles in movies like Chaplin, The Specialist and Casino. He was noted as one of the town’s biggest scene-stealers, and he was so beloved that he was invited to voice himself on not one but two iconic animated sitcoms, The Simpsons and Family Guy

Yet, in 2024, when you say the name James Woods, people think of a Twitter blowhard rather than the great actor we all considered him to be back in the day. One downside to the reversal of fortune to his career is that many of his films don’t get a lot of play now, no matter how entertaining they are, such as this week’s Best Movie You Never Saw: The Hard Way.

A Buddy Cop Movie With A Twist

This 1991 action-comedy teamed Woods with Michael J. Fox for their take on the classic buddy-cop thriller, with a twist. Only one of the buddies is actually a cop, with James Woods’ hardboiled New York detective, John Moss, being forced to take a Mel Gibson-style action star, Nick Lang, under his wing to show him what being a cop is really about. The formula was actually spoofed by Woods himself on a famous episode of The Simpsons when he goes to work at the Kwik-E-Mart to prepare for a role. The movie is directed by one of the biggest directors of the era, John Badham, who’s shockingly obscure nowadays despite churning out hit after hit for about 15 years. I mean, Saturday Night Fever, Blue Thunder, WarGames (starring the late Dabney Coleman), Stakeout – these are iconic movies! Yet, it seems like everyone always forgets who directed them.

The Hard Way followed another action comedy he made the year before, Bird on a Wire, which co-starred Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn. Fox’s Nick Lang seems to be a loving parody of Gibson, with him frequently mentioning Gibson as his box office nemesis and sporting a very Gibson-style ponytail, which he wore in Bird on a Wire

james woods the hard way

In The Hard Way, Fox’s Nick Lang is coming off a sequel to his biggest hit, Smoking Gun, and is fed up with not being taken seriously as an actor. He badly wants to star in a hard-boiled cop movie, but the studio doesn’t think he has the depth needed, so he buys his way into an apprenticeship with Woods’ Moss. The only problem is that Moss has no interest whatsoever in babysitting Lang, with him on the trail of a psycho serial killer named The Party Crasher, who’s played by an unhinged (and jacked) Stephen Lang. 

There are a lot of very good reasons why The Hard Way works. For one thing, Badham expertly juggles the movie’s tone. He was known to be an expert as far as action comedies went, with Stakeout, Bird on a Wire and this one always taking the action seriously, with the comedy emerging from the mismatched chemistry of its stars rather than heightened or silly shenanigans. The action scenes in The Hard Way are surprisingly potent, with Woods slimmed down for his shot at being an action star and making a convincing and intense hero. The same thing goes for Fox’s Nick Lang, who never becomes a joke. Sure, he’s a weakling when the movie starts, but as it goes on, he becomes tougher and more heroic, with him getting a great action sequence where he pretends to be totally unhinged (in Mel Gibson-fashion) when he’s taken hostage by The Party Crasher, turning the tables on him in a cool, but not totally unbelievable way. Lang also makes for a really solid villain, with him legitimately scary as the insane killer they’re after, and he and Woods have a few really cool fights.

James Woods: Action Hero?

Indeed, the movie is so well cast. While Woods wasn’t anyone’s idea of an action hero, given how his fast-talking nature always had a narcissistic/ villainous edge to it, casting him against type really works. Moss is supposed to be an insecure, macho mess of a man, with him trying to woo a divorcee (played by the lovely Annabella Sciorra) whose daughter (a very young Christina Ricci) hates him. The nearly psychotic vigour he attacks his duties with makes him an interesting lead, and the fact that he’s not an invincible Superman makes him all the more appealing. His attitude is what makes the movie, in my opinion. Michael J. Fox is just as good, even if, in my opinion, this is Woods’ movie. Again, Nick Lang is wimpy – at first – but doesn’t become too much of a joke. Fox brings some heart to the role, such as a heartbreaking moment where he thinks Moss has taken the wrap for him on a shooting but was just being set up as a punchline and a way to get him out of the precinct while they focus on the real work. Their chemistry is great, with Woods noting many times, while promoting the film, that he found it challenging playing a character that’s supposed to be annoyed by Fox, as he found him very likable as a co-star.

the hard way 1991

Indeed, Fox’s likability might have been what doomed the movie at the box office, as in ’91, he was known for his family-friendly fare. As a kid, I remember gearing up to see The Hard Way in theaters but then being unable to go due to the R-rating and how strictly the rules were enforced in Canada at the time. I did see it on video, and sure enough, the non-stop F-bombs and hardcore violence made it an instant classic for my action-junkie 10-year-old self. Sadly, it whiffed at the box office, only grossing $25 million domestically. That said, it was actually a hit overseas, with it more than doubling its lacklustre box office. It also became a hit on home video and TV, oddly bypassing HBO to have a TV debut (in a highly censored version) on NBC, which aired frequently and posted blockbuster ratings. 

Watching it now, the film holds up quite well, largely thanks to the acting, the stylish direction, and a great supporting cast that includes an early role for Delroy Lindo as Woods’ star-struck captain and LL Cool J as a cop. Interestingly, LL Cool J was only supposed to have a walk-on role as part of a deal to acquire “Mama Said Knock You Out” for the soundtrack, but he was such a natural as an actor that Badham expanded his role to co-star status. Ironically, LL Cool J is now arguably better known as an actor than a rapper.

While some may not rush to dig into James Woods’ cinematic oeuvre in the wake of his online persona, I think he’s great in this movie, and it holds up well more than 30 years since its release. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot. 

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.