Thirty-eight years ago I sat in the old Fortway Theater on Fort Hamilton Parkway and watched Charles Bronson knock people down.
This probably sounds like every Charles Bronson movie ever made, but in this case I’m referring to Walter Hill’s “Hard Times,” where the man the French called Le Sacre Monstre played Chaney, a bareknuckle boxer in Depression-era New Orleans.
Bronson has always been my favorite action movie star and, as a teenage tough guy wannabe, I got a vicarious thrill watching him take on all sorts of roughneck characters in illegal boxing matches.
The movie was on cable last week and though I’ve seen it several times, I couldn’t resist recording it and giving it another look. It holds up very well.
Yes, it’s a guys’ movie, but it’s a really well done guys’ movie.
James Coburn plays Speed, a promoter who becomes Chaney’s manager. In contrast to Bronson, who barely spoke 500 words in the entire picture, Coburn has several excellent lines and he delivers them brilliantly.
“Every town had somebody who thinks he's tough as a nickel steak,” he tells Bronson at their first meeting, “but they all come to old Speed for the do-re-mi.”
The great character actor, Strother Martin plays Poe, the cut man who has a way with words and a weakness for opium.
“Some are born to fail,” Poe says of his addiction, “and some have it thrust upon them.”
When a Cajun hustler pulls out a revolver and refuses to pay up after Chaney beats his man, Poe shakes his head sadly and says it's "a poor example of Southern sportsmanship.”
A Man of Few Words
Chaney doesn’t reveal much about himself, even to Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real life spouse, who plays his girlfriend in the film.
“How do you make money?” she asks.
“I knock people down,” he says.
“What does it feel like to knock somebody down?”
“It makes me feel a hell of a lot better than it does him,” Chaney replies.
Bronson was in his fifties when he made this picture and he looks great. Hill, who was making his directorial debut, said Bronson was in remarkable physical condition for his age, but he was also a smoker and “couldn’t fight much longer than 30 or 40 seconds.”
No matter. The fight scenes are great, no kung fu movie insanity; no Rocky-style massacre; just tough guys pounding on each other until one of them gives up. And this film came out three years before Clint Eastwood’s monkey movie.
Despite it’s tough subject matter, "Hard Times" doesn’t have the gory stomach-turning violence that plagues movies today. There are no screeching car chases, blazing machine gun battles or exploding buildings.
No one dies, there is very little gunplay, and while the gangsters, loan sharks and pugilists are quite menacing, they don’t resort to spewing the f-bomb in all directions.
The film traces Chaney’s rise in the illegal fight game as he takes on the fearsome Jim Henry (Robert Tessier), a tattooed, hairless slab of muscle-bound misery who exists solely to hurt people.
When Speed’s reckless gambling gets him in serious trouble with a local gangster, it’s up to Chaney to bail him out by taking on Street (Nick Dimitri), a fighter brought in from Chicago, in a barren warehouse.
The Fortway Theater is now a supermarket. I am now older than Charles Bronson was when he made this film and I learned a long time ago that I am no kind of tough guy. The only hitting I do is on the heavy bag, which, thankfully, does not hit back.
But I can still enjoy this movie, still pretend that I, too, am a sacre monster, and when I move on, I want people to say the same thing about me that Speed said about Cheney.
“He sure was something.”
I like the sound of that.