In the wake of the many terrible vehicles Charles Bronson slept walked his way through, it's easy to forget the handful of decent pictures he made. This would include HARD TIMES, Walter Hill's 1975 maiden effort as director. It isn't one that gets much mention in the laconic leading man's resume, but is easily one of Bronson's most enjoyable and colorful entertainments.
During the Great Depression, a drifter named Chaney (Bronson) hops train cars town to town and looks for fights - the bare knuckle type that gentlemen wager over. Calling them "gentlemen" is being polite as they snarl and drool while 2 men bloody each other within an inch of death. Hill makes this point vividly during a scene when fighters jump around during a cage match but it's those outside of it, the spectators, who are presented as animalistic.
Chaney hooks up with a dapper fellow named Speed (James Coburn, excellent again) who arranges his brawls and eventually becomes his manager. This is a no-brainer as Chaney tends to KO his opponents with a single punch. Even the frightening, smiling hulk named Jim Henry (Robert Tessier) is no match for Chaney's skills. This attracts the attention of a New Orleans businessman - and Henry's manager-named Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire) who repeatedly tries to lure Chaney away from the crafty but hapless Speed, who is often reduced to borrowing from loan sharks.
When Gandil recruits a Chicago street fighter to fight Chaney, the latter refuses. This spells trouble for Speed as Gandil decides to square the man's debts with the Mob and hold him hostage, threatening to kill him if Chaney doesn't agree to the match.
HARD TIMES is good old unpretentious, meat and potatoes fare. That is not to say it is simply for the undiscriminating or easily amused. Hill, writing with Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell, layer their violent tale with much commentary on the code of machismo and the the folly of hero worship, especially notable in a scene where Chaney shoots an image of himself in a mirror in a bar after a roustabout/shootout. And how about that mysterious cat Chaney adopts for a time, how similar it is to him? The finale makes the case.
What I noticed most, aside from the rock solid fight choreography and rich period flavor, was how deliberate this film was. No quick cuts or attempts to be artsy. HARD TIMES plays with the economy of a Hemingway short story or even your average 1930s potboiler. As usual, Bronson says very little, and his real life wife Jill Ireland, playing a lonely woman with whom he vainly attempts a relationship, fails to impress with her acting. Sadly, Hill also again demonstrates how poorly he handles female characters in his films. To nearly the same degree he is successful with his male ones.
And about that ending. I was reminded of the closing moments of POINT BLANK, how a big confrontation does not provide the expected vicarious payoff, but something more thoughtful (here, something far less ambiguous than in John Boorman's classic). "Shouldn't we say something?" someone asks. No, sometimes, no. You should not.