Some will dither about whether Hard Times should properly be called an action film. After all, its not about people getting killed, nor is there much gunplay. Still, if an action film is one defined by the excitement engendered by its violence, then Hard Times definitely qualifies. Set during the Great Depression year of 1933, our film follows a rail-riding loner named Chaney (Charles Bronson). Arriving in New Orleans, Chaney hooks up with Speed (James Coburn), a smalltime street hustler and promoter of bare-knuckle boxing matches. Eventually Speed cheeses off some local bigwigs and Chaney has to decide how much he owes his erstwhile partner.
Thats the basics, but its the details that make the film such a gem. Walter Hill, who at one time was a great action film director (although sadly no longer, it seems), brings a remarkable sense of time and place to the proceedings. Considering that this was the first movie he helmed, its a remarkably assured affair.
The characterizations are surprisingly deep, making this a picture that becomes richer with repeat viewings. Chaneys a quiet man, yet theres more going on there then initially seems to be the case. Speed, meanwhile, is a man who believes himself destined to become a major player. He never will be, though, because he has no sense of control. When his fighters win he cant help gloating, a flaw that eventually might prove fatal. Following a big score, perhaps the biggest of his life, he swiftly loses all the money in a crap game. Only his ability to inspire loyalty in his associates keeps him alive.
The roughhewn Bronson is entirely believable in his role, in what is probably his last really good movie. After seeing him as Chaney its hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. Coburn is equally good in a role tailor made for him. The veteran supporting cast is uniformly fine, with Strother Martins especially enjoyable as a dissolute Southern gentleman and hophead. Bronsons wife Jill Ireland provides Chaney with a refreshingly unromanticized romantic interest.
The heart of the movie, however, is its bare-knuckle matches. These are extremely well staged, and its interesting to watch Chaney in his various brawls. Most of his opponents rely upon a certain technique, but he proves cannier. Getting on in years, Chaney is strong, fast and tough, but not the strongest, fastest or toughest. Therefore he changes his strategy to play off the weaknesses of whoever hes currently fighting.
Anyone who finds merit in the smaller scale but grittier action flicks made in the 70s, like The French Connection, Dirty Harry or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, will find this a keeper. The lean ninety-odd minute running time serves to make modern action fare seem bloated in comparison.
The disc presents the film in both widescreen and full frame versions. I especially cant imagine watching the fight sequences in full frame, which would presumably ruin their staging, but we all know people who cant stand letterboxing. The picture and sound are suitably crisp, although the image does occasionally seem just a bit dark. Thats intentional, however, as director Hill purposely used lighting levels that are realistic for the era and locales.
You got a trailer, thats about it. Still, given the discs more than reasonable fifteen dollar street price, thats about what youd expect.
Ken Begg, 11/13/2001