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DVD Review: Hard Times


★★★☆☆

Eureka Entertainment have been fortuitous in releasing this debut from famed action director Walter Hill while he’s enjoying a renewed interest in his past works. In actuality, this is probably more down to the fanfare around Edgar Wright’s upcoming homage to the director Baby Driver than Hill’s own recent, poorly-received feature Tomboy (aka The Assignment). The director had honed his skills as a screenwriter a couple of years prior to getting behind the camera and while Hard Times is absent of the kind of playfulness with genre which grew to be Hill’s forte, it’s a solid enough debut with a strong showing of craftsmanship and a trio of fine performances.

Depression-era New Orleans, a drifter by the name of Chaney (Charles Bronson) steps off a slow-moving freight train and almost immediately enters into an illegal bare-knuckle fight, where he proves to be the easy victor. Falling in with Spencer ‘Speed’ Weed (James Coburn) a smooth-taking fixer up to his neck in debt, Chaney is encouraged to repeat his prowess in the ring and he soon begins making a name for himself in the underground circuit. As his reputation grows, Speed arranges a contest where the financial stakes are upped considerably, thus putting the duo and their opium-addicted cutman (famed character actor Strother Martin) in a precarious position.

Those enamoured by Hill’s high-octane yarns may be taken aback initially by the understated direction here. There’s certainly the sense that he was feeling his way around the medium and the sometimes glacial pace is illustrative of this. The filmmaker’s visual sensibilities are far more on point however, and it’s a beautiful-looking film – the atmospheric lighting and careful compositions occasionally evoking an Edward Hopper-like backdrop. Hill also creates a powerful sense of location and his knack for casting pays off superbly with Bronson, who turns in arguably his finest performance with his brand of monosyllabic stoicism being put to particularly good use. Coburn’s cheeky devil-may-care charisma offers the perfect counterpart to his co-star’s turn.

As always, Eureka have put together some considered and illuminating supplementary material for the disc, including fun anecdotal interviews with Hill, long-time producer Lawrence Gordon and composer Barry De Vorzon (who would go on to score Hill’s The Warriors). Hard Times may not have grown in stature to the extent where it will be mentioned by fans in the same breath as the director’s more revered titles, but it’s certainly worth a punt and is an absolute must for Hill completists.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76