Sunday, June 02, 2013

The Long Hard Road

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.


Ron said...

Awesome movie review, Rob!

You're a regular Siskel and Ebert!

My mother LOVED Charles Bronson! She used to tell my father that Charles Bronson would be the only man she would leave him for - HA!

I just read the bio link you left on Charles Bronson and didn't realize he was from Pennsylvania!

I remember reading Jill Ireland's book before she passed away. In it she said how much she and Bronson loved one another. They were like soul mates.

Loved this dialogue from the movie...

“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."


I will have to look for this film the next time I'm in the video store because I love the time period it's set in.

Thanks for sharing, buddy!

Have a super week!

Rob K said...

Hey, Ron!

So your mom was a Charles Bronson fan?!? That's so cool! But I'm sure she was just kidding about leaving your dad for him. We hope... :)

Yes, he was from PA and he worked in the coal mines. I believe he was trapped in one as a young man and developed a lifelong fear of tight spaces.

It's a cool movie, so if you check it out, be sure to let me know what you think!

Take care, buddy!

CrystalChick said...

While I don't think I would really enjoy this movie (boxing... bleh! lol) your review was excellent!! If I ever notice it on any of the cable stations, I'll give it a few minutes... if just for the acting and that it doesn't have all the craziness you mentioned about some of newer films.
The only Bronson movie I can think of right now that I've ever seen (maybe there were others?) is White Buffalo. I seem to remember liking something about it but it was such a long time ago I recall no details.

Nice that you got to see an old fav again.

Rob K said...

Hey, Crystal Chick, what do you say?

Yes, this is basically a guy film, but what I like about it is that because it's set in the Great Depresssion, it's clear that these guys are hitting each other out of desperation rather just manly man nonsense.

I saw "White Buffalo" years ago and I liked it. The story is basically "Moby Dick" set in the Old West, but the actors are all quite good--Jack Warden in particularl stands out in my memory.

Thanks for stopping by!

Bijoux said...

My son loves those kind of older movies. I will mention it to him!

Isn't it sad when the places you haunted as a kid are turned into bland shopping places?

Rob K said...

Hey, Bijoux, how's it going?

It's sad and a little scary when you start doing the math! Hope your son enjoys the movie.

Take care!