Grade: B
Crime comedy
Rated R

It’s usually not a good sign when you haven’t heard of a film starring two well-known actors—especially when it was released almost 30 years ago. How good can it be, this film that somehow sank into cinematic obscurity? As it turns out, The Hard Way, starring Michael J. Fox and James Woods, is surprisingly entertaining. It’s a keeper, especially if you’re a fan of buddy cop crime comedies.

The premise reminds you a bit of Ride Along (2014), with its familiar trope of good cop / bad cop referring, as it often does in the genre, to one good cop who’s forced to partner with someone that drives him guano crazy. Sometimes the ride-along is a wannabe cop, as in Ride Along, and sometimes it’s a geeky and clueless desk jockey, as in The Other Guys (2010). Most fans of the buddy cop movies trace the genre to 1987’s Lethal Weapon, which paired a dedicated about-to-retire cop with a loose cannon of a partner who had a death wish. But while most of the buddy cop films that have been made since then have carried a PG-13 rating to keep them more solidly in the realm of family viewing, The Hard Way followed Lethal Weapon’s lead and went with an R rating. There’s some moderate serious violence and some heavy realistic language here.

In this crime comedy from John Badham (WarGames, Short Circuit, Saturday Night Fever), a no-nonsense, anger-management challenged, borderline-rogue New York City detective (Woods) is forced to partner with a naïve Hollywood action hero (Fox) who pulled some strings to arrange the ride-along experience he needs in order to research a serious role he so desperately wants.

If you can get past the hard-to-swallow (but intentionally absurd) clip scenes of the diminutive and baby-faced Fox as an Indiana Jones’ style hero, and if you can believe that he can walk the streets of New York—where giant billboards featuring his face promote his latest movie—and not be recognized, this film has a lot to offer. There are taut action sequences, a solid plot, and a pairing that, however unlikely it seems, still makes you laugh out loud in a quite a few places. It’s every bit as good as films like Ride Along and Running Scared, better than Central Intelligence and Ride Along 2, and nearly as good as other films in the genre.

The stakes are high. New York City is beset by a serial killer that tips off police in advance, so he can murder people right under their noses. He wants an audience, he wants a challenge, and Det. John Moss (Woods) wants him—so badly that he’s willing to disobey orders and continue to pursue the killer, even with pampered Hollywood star Nick Lang and his fake gun and badge in tow. John tries to ditch Nick repeatedly, because nothing is more annoying than an actor asking questions constantly and trying to mimic you only moments after you’ve said or done something “gritty.” Sometimes John gets so intense and Mel Gibson crazy that you wonder why he hasn’t been put in a room with nice soft walls, but it’s that craziness that makes the film work. Woods clearly has fun in a comedic role and runs (sprints?) with it, while Fox tends to play off of him the way Alex P. Keaton did off of his liberal parents—more deadpan and puppy-dog exhuberant than anything else.

Of course there’s a love interest (Annabella Sciorra, as Susan)—or at least a “date” interest—that enables sensitive ladies’ man Nick to school his gruff and socially inept partner in how to behave around her. Some familiar faces turn up, too, in the supporting cast, including Luis Guzmán, LL Cool J, Delroy Lindo, and Penny Marshall. Martin Scorsese’s father even appears in a cameo, and you’ll recognize the late actor because of a strong family relationship.

There’s really no point in giving away any more of the plot, but I will share that I found myself suspecting why a reviewer from Entertainment Weekly called the movie out for being uneven, “all guns and gag lines.” Rather than a uniform middle-of-the-road blended dramedy, The Hard Way offers alternating serious dramatic action sequences and comedic moments. There are times when you find yourself thinking, well this is intense, as well as moments of lightly comedic interludes and the occasional laugh-out-loud line. There’s less of an attempt to blend the action and comedy in The Hard Way, which almost makes it feel unique, though it follows the buddy cop formula in every other way.

Entire family: No (older teens and adults)
Run time: 111 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link
Rated R for violence and language

Language: 10/10—Here’s where the film gets its R rating by today’s standards, with a few dozen f-bombs and 50 or so more minor swearwords

Sex: 2/10—Aside from a male mooning there are brief mentions of sex acts

Violence: 5-10—There are shootouts and a bar brawl and a realistic fight scene; one person looks to be shot dead, but isn’t really; lots a shooting and peril but really nothing too graphic

Adult situations: 5/10—John is trying to quit smoking, he and Nick have drinks at a bar, and there are several drunks

Takeaway: Despite the odd couple pairing, it works, and, as I said, it’s surprisingly entertaining . . . enough for fans of the buddy cop genre to keep in their home library