The Film: 4/5
During the Great Depression a mysterious drifter named Chaney (Charles Bronson) arrives in a Louisiana town via boxcar transportation. With just six dollars to his name he chances upon an illegal bare knuckle fight where the fighter represented by gregarious promoter "Speed" Weed (James Coburn) handily gets his ass handed to him. Sensing an opportunity Chaney offers his services as a fighter to Speed and wins his first brawl with a single punch. Speed is determined to build his fortune on Chaney's abilities and the two form an alliance to split every cent made from a fight down the middle. They head to New Orleans and Speed hires opium-addicted former medical student Poe (Strother Martin) to be their cut man. Speed begins setting up fights for Chaney with an eye toward challenging Jim Henry (Robert Tessier), a hulking bruiser represented by local seafood entrepreneur Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire). But before that can happen Speed has to raise $3,000 to stake his fighter in the match, and he's already heavily in debt to loan sharks who are prepared to use violence of their own to collect what they are owed. In the meantime Chaney becomes infatuated with Lucy Simpson (Jill Ireland), who lives alone since her husband went to prison, and they begin a relationship. Chaney has made it clear to Speed and Poe that once he makes enough money to keep traveling the country he intends to leave the underground fighting circuit. He doesn't count on Gandil and Speed's unsavory debtors pressing him back into service for one last fight, with the prize being something more important than money: the life of the unscrupulous manager who has become his friend.
Walter Hill is one of the best directors of pure action to work in the film industry since the emergence of the New Hollywood in the late 60's/early 70's. He studied at the feet of the master Sam Peckinpah, wrote diamond-tough screenplays like The Getaway and Hickey & Boggs (a much cooler use of Robert Culp and Bill Cosby's buddy-buddy chemistry than every season of I, Spy combined), and then graduated to making his own bracing action classics like The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, and 48 Hrs. It was the success of the latter film (owing as much to Hill's steely direction as to the breakout star performance from Eddie Murphy) that gave Hill license to indulge himself in grander escapades on screen. His career never really recovered once he started churning out worthy but expensive flops like Streets of Fire and Geronimo: An American Legend. Every now and then the old Walter Hill pops up in the form of Trespass or Undisputed, and most recently he made Bullet to the Head with Sylvester Stallone (which I have not yet seen but most reports claim it is at best merely okay). The world seems to have passed him by just as it did with Peckinpah and John Ford and Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh and even John Carpenter, a fellow student of the old masters of American tough guy cinema who went on to make sci-fi, action, and horror films that were old school westerns at their core. At least Hill continues to ply his trade even as Hollywood would just as well prefer he retire quietly and let them get back to the business of making multiple superhero movies and Fast and the Furious sequels. The works of directors like Walter Hill deserve to be studied and appreciated and used to inspire future generations of storytellers using expansive canvases to bring their visions to life, not relegated to the bargain bins at Wal-Mart and Big Lots. But yet that's the way it is. It makes me a little sad.
Hard Times is one of the last Walter Hill movies I had yet to see. The recent limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time gave me the chance to rectify this grievous lapse in judgment. Charles Bronson, another legend of action cinema deserving of more adulation and less mockery, makes a grand entrance by hopping off a passing freight train and almost immediately walks right into the opportunity of a lifetime. Chaney is the quintessential Bronson character, a stoic and honorable man who can communicate better with an expression on his magnificent stone face than a wordy monologue. When he does speak it has a greater impact. James Coburn's indelibly monikered motormouth Speed Weed provides the perfect counterpart to Bronson as the consummate hustler who initially treats Chaney no different than a horse he placed a sizable bet on. Though Hill's star pairing have no scenes where a friendship is evidently developing between them if you focus more on what is not being as opposed to what is you will see the makings of a time-tested partnership with the depth and grandeur of a great American novel.
In his debut feature Hill demonstrated an impeccable gift for grounding his mythical narrative in a time and place that felt authentic. The Depression-era Louisiana locales come alive through amazingly detailed production and costume design and the sharp cinematography from the great Philip H. Lathrop, who also shot Lonely Are the Brave, John Boorman’s Point Blank, the original Pink Panther, and Hill’s follow-up to Hard Times, the lean and mean 1978 crime drama The Driver (also set to be released to Blu this summer by Twilight Time - can’t wait for that one). The fights are bloodless (Because....PG rating) but still come off as brutal and punishing as staged by Hill and assembled by the precision editing work of Roger Spottiswoode, who cut Straw Dogs and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah and co-wrote Hill’s action-comedy smash 48 Hrs before becoming a filmmaker in his own right. As Roger Ebert pointed out in later reviews of Hill’s films, the sound effects accompanying each punch was created by smacking ping pong paddles against Naugahyde sofas. Silly as that may appear it gives the fight sequences a power and immediacy that might make you feel the pain the combatants in each match experience.
Bronson and Coburn are a great team and their individual scenes are played out with terrific skill laconic professionalism. Strother Martin does wonderful character work as the cut man Poe, adding a note of drugged-out poetry to his lost soul. I never cared much for Jill Ireland’s acting since she was always given the thankless role of Bronson’s doomed love interest, but at least here she creates a sympathetic and lonely character in the few scenes she shares with her leading man. Robert Tessier (Star Crash) makes an awesome intimidating brute even when he isn’t bashing someone’s brains out with his fists, and Michael McGuire is a fine villain motivated by power and the almighty buck.
Twilight Time certainly outperforms most of the competition when it comes to their Blu-ray transfers, even though their supplements selection often leaves a lot to be desired. Hard Times is presented in a new 1080p high-definition transfer in a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio that is modestly condensed from its original theatrical exhibition. The picture looks superb and the Depression-era sets and costumes, all financed on a budget of less than $3 million, benefit greatly from the subtle softness in the transfer. Each frame gains additional texture and detail, and the grain content in the print has been reduced to the minimum required to continue resembling an actual piece of celluloid. The sparse dialogue, cheering crowds, brutal punches, and cannon-loud gunfire all come off sounding stellar on the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, one of two sound options on this disc (the other is discussed in the next section). The integrity of the sound mix has been preserved with solid volume levels for every component and a complete absence of distortion. English subtitles are also included.
Barry DeVorzon's hauntingly melodic score is spotlighted on its own isolated 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Separated from the rest of the mix the music sounds somewhat clearer and is a pure listening pleasure, and switching back to the 5.1 audio mix just might enhance your overall appreciation of the composer's understated work. Wrapping things up on the supplements side are a theatrical trailer presented in standard definition (the sole bonus feature on Sony's 1999 DVD) and a catalogue of other titles available from Twilight Time. Included as an insert with the Blu-ray is another the company's customary liner note booklets written by Julie Kirgo that provide some interesting background information on Hard Times. Some additional participation from director Hill would have been extremely welcome, but producing new commentaries and documentaries typically isn't Twilight Time's cup of tea.
Never doubt Walter Hill's ability to make a movie that is both exciting, honest, and emotional without becoming overly complex and dull. His best films are minor masterworks of classical moviemaking that remain as timeless as when they were first released. Hard Times is one of his more underappreciated features but with any luck Twilight Time's Blu-ray - which is limited to 3000 units - will go a long way towards helping the movie gain a larger audience. It may not be fast but it is sure as hell furious and it packs a stronger punch than any blows unleashed by Superman.