After my post on The Driver (1978), I had one friend plus a few readers and twitter followers urge me to check out Walter Hill’s directorial debut Hard Times (1975) and I really enjoyed it.
Charles Bronson plays a Depression-era boxer named Chaney, who steps off a boxcar and into promoter and con man Speed’s (James Coburn) underground bare-knuckle fighting world. Chaney and Speed strike up a partnership, go to New Orleans, win several fights, and even beat the biggest boxer there. For Chaney it adds up to enough money to move on, but Speed gets in major financial trouble when a losing Cajun won’t pay up and a loan shark demands payment, so Chaney gets pulled in to fight once more.
Money and desperation motivate and define both loner Chaney and huckster Speed. Chaney is a man of few words, stoic and decent, brings home stray cats and saves his warmth and charm for a woman he meets in a diner (Bronson’s real wife Jill Ireland). In and out of the ring, Chaney is efficient, studious, guarded and strategic. By contrast, Speed is a careless and cocky gambler, a chatterbox and showman taking huge risks and heavy losses. This pairing navigating the cutthroat circuit and clashing with big egos makes for a fine buddy movie anchored by fantastic performances from Bronson and Coburn. They don’t need pages of dialogue and deep backstories to communicate honour, weakness, loyalty, and the bonding, scathing breakup and sweet make-up between tough men.
Their introspective moments aren’t sappy or overplayed and bring welcome pauses between the fights, which get more challenging and brutal as Chaney works his way up through burlier and scarier opponents (including Nick Dimitri and Robert Tessier). There are 5 fights and all are incredibly entertaining, suspenseful and well-staged. It’s hard to believe Bronson was in such great shape at age 53, the way he swiftly delivers some of the most devastating and thrilling punches ever filmed. It’s all unsentimental and authentic, right up to the end when Chaney “saves” Speed. It’s just a guy being sportsmanlike and doing his duty to a friend, and more moving and memorable because of that restraint.
Strother Martin is great as Poe, opium addict and former doctor who patches Chaney up (not that Chaney gets hit enough to need much patching). Poe sums up his life with a fittingly dry bit of philosophy: “Some are born to fail, others have it thrust upon them.”