Films set in the Great Depression are often marked by their extreme melodrama in depicting the day-to-day survival of desperate individuals. But Walter Hill’s Hard Times couldn’t be more different in its stylistic and emotional restraint. Instead of raising its characters’ conflicts to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, the film boils down action and conflict to the barest essentials: fists and money. Time passes by slowly in the film, creating a leisurely tone that stands at odds with the action-oriented plot set within the brutal world of underground bare-knuckle boxing. It’s a tonal paradox brilliantly personified by Cheney (Charles Bronson), the film’s central bruiser who expresses such stoic resolve he often bypasses words entirely and communicates mostly through his eyes.
As the opening credits roll over an empty railroad yard, the sounds of an approaching train grow louder. The only signs of life are occasional bird chirps, and the faint sound of a harmonica traveling with the wind. Otherwise, this is a graveyard of metal and glass. In a way, Hard Times is just as much a post-apocalyptic vision as Blade Runner. Out of one shadowy boxcar jumps Cheney, who walks through columns of abandoned vehicles and rusty rails toward the nearest Podunk town. There he finds a bustling underground boxing syndicate run by bookies like Speed (James Coburn) who gamble freely and deal in large sums of money. After Cheney delivers a swift knockout, the two men become partners in the fight game, a relationship that sends them south to New Orleans, where the odds and the competition are steeper.
Eventually, loyalties are tested and betrayals confirmed, familiar terrain for such rugged genre territory. However, Hard Times values this progression as something more than churning plot gears. Hill is genuinely interested in the way men express themselves non-verbally, or through short bursts of dialogue. This is especially true when it comes to Cheney, who expressed to Speed in one key early sequence, “I don’t like to rush things.” One can sense Cheney studying his opponents and friends alike, noting weaknesses and strengths with the ultimate Bronson poker face. When the time does come to throw down, his fighting style, like Hill’s direction, is defined by patience, waiting for his attacker to strike then pummeling them with body blows, as if their torsos were slabs of raw meat.
From the standpoint of basic economics, Hard Times admits wholeheartedly that money is king. There isn’t a moment that passes where dollar bills aren’t discussed, fought over, or traded. While Speed is constantly trying to live up to his name and make the big money fast, he’s stymied by Cheney’s more calculated strategies of watching and waiting. It’s not surprising, then, that Speed’s attempts nearly always fail while Cheney’s are consistently successful. In this sense, the film sees surviving the Depression as an exercise in smart investments, namely in one’s own talents, reliability, and code of honor. It’s here that Hard Times feels most like a brilliant prerequisite to the cinema of Michael Mann, a focused neo-western where the last man standing is the one truest to himself.
Twilight Time’s 1080p transfer conveys the film’s Depression-era world of rust and bone with vivid detail. Charles Bronson’s cavernous knuckles and James Coburn’s sweet white suits both stand out as defining attributes of men attempting to survive on their talents. The disc’s audio balances the film’s alternately thunderous and subdued sound design with careful and delicate attention, though at key moments the dialogue sounds muted, making specific sequences difficult to understand.
Only the film’s original theatrical trailer and an isolated score track.
Walter Hill’s pummeling debut starring Charles Bronson arrives on Blu-ray looking as muscular and stout as ever.