- Directed by Walter Hill (Directorial Debut)
- October 8, 1975 (US)
In Louisiana during the Great Depression, a freighthopping drifter competes in illegal bare-knuckled boxing matches with the help of a local hustler.
Hard Times is a great mid 70s sports drama and a fantastic way for director Walter Hill to start his career. It contains a talented cast that were ideal for a story like this. We have James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Strother Martin, and of course Jill Ireland in a surprisingly well crafted pre-Rocky sports drama. Bronson and Coburn have great chemistry together.
In this film Bronson turns in a much more nuanced performance than what he’s stereotypically known for. Bronson was known for characters that shot first and never ran out of bullets later.
Chaney though is much more complex than the father in Death Wish for example. Chaney is a tough man but not tough for the sake of being tough. Life has forced him to be hard, but he is not cold. His Chaney is broken down and weathered. He is mysterious and has an inner strength and proceeds with a sense of inevitability. Chaney will go to bat for his friends and seeks romance even if it is for the moment.
James Coburn costars as Speed and is essentially Chaney’s manager. He’s a bit of a slimeball but a slimeball that one could get along with. He sees Chaney as his golden ticket to cover his gambling, but his own character flaws are what causes the bulk of the problems in this story.
Strother Martin is great as Poe who is a disgraced former medical student that plays doctor in the underground fight ring where the story takes place. He uses flowery language to dance around the realities of his life and Martin makes the character rather likable.
And what’s a Charles Bronson film without Jill Ireland? Here she plays the love interest Lucy Simpson that Chaney charms while he is in town. She was Bronson’s answer to John Wayne’s regular casting of Bruce Cabot.
I guess Lucy is there to humanize the character but ultimately she’s unnecessary to that. Chaney’s interactions with Speed and Poe and how he is developed as an individual more than do that. She’s good but she adds nothing to the story. Lucy is just looking for some comfort and protection and nothing too serious in her time with Chaney. Once her husband returns, he is most definitely out of the picture. It was a nice subplot but ultimately went nowhere.
The story of Hard Times is set during the Depression and the characters that are presented are reflective of that era. They are not hardened criminals but rather people that are using what basic skills they have to get by. Speed is a promoter type. Poe for all of his flaws could have been a good doctor with a decent bedside manner. And Chaney is an honorable brawler with enough skill to have made a possible living as a boxer.
A rivalry is set up early on between Chick (Michael McGuire), a local seafood tycoon with gangster pretensions and is obsessed with having the best street fighter in town, and Speed which leads to the finale. Speed has once again gotten in over his head in gambling debt and Chick uses that to bring in a ringer (Nick Dimitri) to take out Chaney. Speed says one of the best cuts I have heard to Chick just before the fight. Speed walks over Chick and sniffs and says “You know, Chick, no matter what you do, you’ll always smell like fish.” And nobody could have delivered it better than Coburn.
Hard Times is as much a drama as it is a character driven story punctuated by occasional street fights. The direction is good and while costuming is not the best, you are transported to the era. I especially like the finale of this film and the disposition of the characters. Today the character of Chick would get killed or some serious comeuppance but in the end Speed and Chick part maybe not as friends but at least on decent terms with their rivalry settled having come to an understanding. Chaney moves on his way having realized that the life he has there is not for him.
It is a very mature ending that is a natural outgrowth of events. It is not the easy way of killing off everybody. The characters have grown during the course of the movie. They learned lessons and they’ve come out the end a little different and maybe better for what has happened.
Hard Times is a good boxing movie. It’s no Rocky but it’s a character driven film and a fine bit of drama with Bronson and the rest of the cast turning in great performances. I say check it out!