A lean action drama about an enigmatic tough guy who drifts into the lives of several low-rent characters and has a profound impact, Hard Times borrows a lot, stylistically and thematically, from the cinematic iconography that director John Ford and actor John Wayne developed together. Making his directorial debut, Walter Hill emulates Ford’s elegant but unfussy visual style; similarly, leading man Charles Bronson deomonstrates tight-lipped adherence to a manly code of honor. So, even though there’s a lot of macho hokum on display here—we’re never particularly worried that the hero will lose any of the bare-knuckle boxing matches he enters—Hill effectively taps into the primal themes that made the Ford-Wayne pictures of the past so enjoyable.
Bronson stars as Chaney, a drifter who wanders into Depression-era Louisiana and encounters Speed (James Coburn), a fast-talking fight promoter. Speed belongs to a network of men who stage illicit bare-knuckle boxing brawls, and Chaney offers his services as a new fighter—quickly proving his mettle by dropping his first opponent with one punch. Although Chaney is a good 20 years older than most men working the ring, he’s in spectacular physical condition and he sparks tremendous curiosity by withholding details about his background. Speed reluctantly agrees to Chaney’s terms (management without a long-term commitment), and Chaney soon lands on the radar of Chick Gandi (Michael McGuire), a successful entrepreneur who lords over the New Orleans fight circuit. Exacerbated by Speed’s bad habit of accruing gambling debts, Chaney’s rise sets the stage for an inevitable showdown between Chaney and Gandi’s chosen fighter.
Rewriting an original script by Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell, Hill employs incredibly terse dialogue (in one of Bronson’s best scenes, he only says one word: “dumb”), and the director keeps motivations obvious and pragmatic—a Spartan approach that suits the Depression milieu. Bronson benefits tremendously from Hill’s restraint, since the actor is more impressive simply occupying the camera frame than spewing reams of dialogue. Hill wisely contrasts Bronson with a pair of actors who speak beautifully: Coburn is charming and pathetic as a self-destructive schemer, and Strother Martin is wonderfully eccentric as a drug-addicted doctor enlisted to support Chaney during fights. Bronson’s real-life wife, Jill Ireland, appears somewhat inconsequentially as Chaney’s no-nonsense love interest, though Hard Times is a such a guy movie that all the female players are sidelined. Ultimately, Hard Times is somewhat predictable and shallow—but it’s executed so well those shortcomings don’t matter much.
Hard Times: GROOVY