Talk about nerve! "The Hard Way" has the moxie to lambast "typical Hollywood movies," full of phony stunts by bland twits; then, without a look back or a whisper of regret, it blithely turns into a typical Hollywood movie full of phony stunts by bland twits.
There's a nugget of a kernel of a core of a good idea here, and when the movie hews to it, it's absolutely brilliant. But far too often, and finally fatally, it loses its concentration.
The idea is the opposition between authentic experience and imagined experience and the movie yanks endless yuks out of the clash between them, as a hard-guy homicide cop (James Woods) has to put up with the narcissistic maunderings of a callow, self-absorbed movie star (Michael J. Fox), who's doing "research" for an upcoming role.
Chemistry? The Woods-Fox link-up has it in spades. Woods' edgy, exasperated energy crunches pointedly with Fox's self-obsessed dimness. The two seem to face each other not only from different worlds but from different planetary systems: Woods doesn't know what a movie is and Fox doesn't know what a movie isn't.
"It's so real," Fox croons blissfully as he strides for the first time through the scabby, dingy precinct room, "it's just like the movies!"
Each actor is a master of timing, and when the two of them are jousting, "The Hard Way" is quite a thing to see. Fox's Nick Lang, who stars in a loopy Indiana Jones-like series of films as "Joe Gunn," now wants an image retool -- he wants to be more "realistic." He decides to appoint homicide ace John Moss of NYPD as his Yoda of grit. Grumpy, sardonic Moss just wants to stick to business, not that Nick even notices.
The movie is very funny on a related issue, which is the curious way celebrity, particularly movie celebrity, simply absorbs and transforms all with which it comes into contact. It's the "Entertainment Tonight-ification" of the known world. Thus Woods' Moss is stunned by the efficacy with which the homicide division, his tough supervisor included, is tamed by Nick's glowing presence and becomes his groupies, leaving poor Moss the only sane man in a world mainlining show-biz culture.
But this stubborn streak of genius, unfortunately, is stuck in the middle of exactly what it pretends to be above, which is a big, stupid Hollywood movie. The Nick/John relationship is set off against a wider story, which involves Moss' hunt for a flashy psychopath played by Steven Lang, who likes to shoot people in nightclubs but otherwise has no discernible personality, only a look (butchy blond hair, muscles, Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo laugh, and that's it).
The two themes never interact impressively. Finally, the dumb stunts and the glitzy fakery of Hollywood take over entirely; there's even snatches of buddy-movie slime, as each guy helps the other "open up" and "become more giving." A shame, because "The Hard Way" is at its occasional best when the guys aren't giving but taking.
'The Hard Way'
Starring James Woods and Michael J. Fox.
Directed by John Badham.
Released by Universal.