Hard Times (1975)
Directed by Walter Hill
Thursday, March 29 at BAM's "New Orleans on Film"
Is there a more perfect specimen of a man than Charles Bronson? Chaney, the tight-lipped boxer in Walter Hill's directorial debut Hard Times, must have looked to him like a dream role: he's smaller and older than his sparring partners, but his knuckles do the talking. Backed by the fast-talking fixer Speed Weed (James Coburn), he quickly pole-vaults to the top of the underground fight scene in 1933 New Orleans. Cannily, Coburn gives second fiddle Speed—an endlessly maneuvering dandy and a gambling addict—a thick bravado that can shrivel like tinfoil when push comes to shove. Speed prefers barbs to fisticuffs, never so low that he doesn't have a little bluster to dish out; during one standoff, he tells the guy holding all the cards that "No matter what you do, you're always gonna smell like fish."
Chaney and Speed's relationship, like most in Hill's vision of the Big Easy, is one of mutual convenience—but that doesn't mean they won't share a couple laughs along the way. However lopsided the dialogue, Coburn and Bronson's chemistry never even comes close to fizzling. They don't make 'em like they used to, as the saying goes, and for Hill that was very much the point: if you haven't guessed yet, Hard Times is avowedly old-fangled, owing plenty to your prototypical bread-and-butter boxing picture. But giving contemporary bite to Old Hollywood tropes was the writer-director's calling in the 70s and 80s, from genuinely uncomfortable biracial buddy comedies (Hickey & Boggs, 48 Hrs) to unsparing apocalyptic gang thrillers (The Warriors, Streets of Fire) and neo-Westerns like The Long Riders or The Driver.
One postmodern rub is the fights: nailbiters without real rules or regulations, uncertainty coursing through the losing guys' limbs, each move pulling them into further bloodied desperation. No matter how ugly it gets, it's all business. Hill reached for an onscreen idyll where men could simply be men, and women had few options but to tolerate them; given the movie's wandering, messianic concept of Chaney, the upstart filmmaker probably had more in common with Speed. There is a Big Fight towards the end, but neither Hill nor Bronson ever especially fall to their knees begging for the audience's affection. This is a hardscrabble, seafoam-and-copper tinted anti-epic with a strong grip on stillness and quiet, teetering on the brink of depression but never quite falling in. It deserves a new audience, having distinguished itself in another great revisionist project: the studios' 70s-era backwards glance at the Depression.