This is the kind of movie where the title is said in the first ten minutes. If that doesn’t tell you what you’re getting into, you’re about to get an education…the hard way.
I’m sorry, that was bad. I apologize.
While on a mission in Romania, John Payne’s brother gets killed. Payne (played by Michael Jai White), not being the kind of man to leave something like this unhandled, travels to Romania, links up with his brother’s partner, Mason (Luke Goss), and settles his brother’s affairs. He does this by holding a funeral and then by kicking the ass of a bunch of drug dealers and rescuing his brother’s girlfriend from a life of violence and bad dancing in a terrible nightclub.
There are several things I want to get to about this film, but first I need to point out something vital to understanding the quality of this film: The Hard Way was directed by Keoni Waxman, who is perhaps more (or less) well known for directing multiple Steven Segal movies. And when I say that, I don’t mean early ’90s box office Out for Justice and Under Siege Segal movies. Nor are we talking Segal’s early 2000s still-in-theaters action movies costarring rappers looking to get into acting films like Exit Wounds or Half Past Dead. We’re talking the 2010s straight-to-DVD Segal goatee era, with titles like Force of Execution, A Good Man, and Contract to Kill. You know, the low budget, bottom-of-the-barrel section of Segal’s career. That’s not to say Waxman only works with Segal; he’s done films with the likes of Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, and a variety of other action stars. He just also does this with little to no budget and sometimes has to rely on tricks that would make Ed Wood go giddy to make up for the shortfalls.
What do I mean? Well, let’s put it like this: The Hard Way is about 90 minutes and repeatedly uses flashbacks to other scenes already in the film, so footage gets reused repeatedly. I’d estimate up to ten minutes are probably rapid cut flashbacks, which means 10 minutes that didn’t have to be shot in the run time. Scene transitions are often done with weird VO from the big bad which in practice are jarring but also cost effective. Most noticeable though is probably Luke Goss’ character, who never changes wardrobe despite the film plot taking place over a week or so. Seriously, the guy gets hit by a car and is still wearing the same outfit two days later. I really hope he at least bothered to change his socks. In fact, multiple characters don’t change their clothes despite days going by. Romania must reek of body odor.
And then there is the nightclub scene. Nightclub scenes are always tough, because even done well, they can instantly date a movie. The fashion, the dance, the music…all of this plants a pin on exactly when this film takes place. So how do you get around this? Well, you can make it something meant to identify a time and place, to really help settle the film into a given time period or lifestyle. For instance, the club in The Crow works to keep the goth setting going, while a movie like Boogie Nights is using it to reinforce what era we’re in. Or you can always make it so bad that no time period wants to claim it, like the movie Space Mutiny. The Hard Way goes for this latter approach, with what I think were supposed to be strippers that don’t take their clothes off and instead dance on stage like a bunch of eight-year-olds at a cheesy elementary school talent show. If you think that doesn’t sound sexy, well, you’re right. Can you guess how I can tell there was no budget for a choreographer? Or, hell, a gaffer to actually light this scene like a proper club?
But it’s not all bad news. Michael Jai White is in this movie, and if there is one thing that Waxman seems to understand, it’s that Michael Jai White can kick some ass anywhere, anytime. While Waxman still goes in for some flashy action editing with shaky cam shots and rapid cuts from different angles which end up feeling a little over the top, we can still see enough of White pulling off smooth moves as he beats the tar out of anyone who gets in his way with ease. White’s character is flat out named Payne, and he brings it with a fluidity and style that shows how adept he is in an action scene. In fact, he’s the major high point of the movie; it’s a shame there isn’t a better movie wrapped up around him, because Michael Jai White is the real deal as far as action stars are concerned. He can act, he’s charismatic, he’s tough, he’s smooth in his motions, and he understands how to handle his stunt work.
And that’s also where Waxman does his best directing, though more could be said for the locations; not only is the nightclub scene bad, but there are definitely moments where it feels like props were added just so White could bash someone into it. Of particular note is a piano, which White promptly uses as a means to beat down one big bad. He spends the scene tickling the ivories with a dude’s face, and while White plays it just fine, seriously, why is there a random piano in some random drug dealer lab in Romania? Other things include a hole in the ground that’s a doorway to Hell (and you know someone is going in it as soon as you see it) and a window, though in all fairness White announces he’s gonna put a guy through the window before he does it.
Unfortunately, Waxman loses points not only for the bad, money-saving edits but also the plot and it’s twist, which you’ll figure out in the first fifteen minutes of the movie: the boss of the agency is Randy Couture, and he is also most definitely the big bad boss villain too. Yeah, the twist is obvious from the get go. What is less obvious is who are these guys and this agency. Are they military? Supercops? Spies? If they are military, why are they acting like spies and battling a small drug gang in Romania, which is a job for supercops? That’s the greater mystery, and I must say, it stumped me for the entirety of the film.
Apparently there was a musical action film with the same name released in 2019, so finding trailers for this is actually kind of difficult. That’s ok, I offer up a fight scene instead: