Even the biggest movie stars can make films that get swallowed up in the black hole of public indifference. Does anybody even remember this spring’s Oscar, starring Sly Stallone, or The Hard Way, starring Michael J. Fox? Critics threw brickbats at them both, and no one other than the stars’ stoutest fans paid to see the films: Each grossed about $24 million, a pittance compared with Stallone’s and Fox’s usual pull. These aren’t notorious stinkers like Hudson Hawk; they’re something more curious: resume blips that barely register as background noise in the pop-culture marketplace.

Before video, such blips remained obscure, conjured up only by film scholars and late-night TV. But the advent of overnight rentals means that even a star’s oddest tangent can be subject to scrutiny every night of the year. Any superstar will have at least one of these, and they often say more about a performer’s career strategies than the better-known hits do.

Michael J. Fox hasn’t reached the level of professional floundering that Stallone has, but hey, he’s 15 years younger. Besides, the quick theatrical death of The Hard Way indicates that he’s off to a good start. With its coyly self-conscious high concept (spoiled movie star Fox goes undercover for character research with hard-nosed New York City detective James Woods), this John Badham retread lets Fox try his hand at the action-buddy-cop genre: Stallone-land, in other words. It’s just too bad The Hard Way takes the genre to such a numbing dead end. The plot’s all guns and gag lines, with a hokey tourist’s view of wild-and-crazy Manhattan that’s laughable to anyone who has spent any time there. Even worse, the hyperstylized chase scenes and hectic editing turn into a jumble of visual nonsense on the small screen.

What’s funny is that Fox himself almost saves it. Here’s a guy whose act is all timing: He’s a bantamweight, but a very talented one. And, unlike Stallone, Fox is secure enough to goof on his own image and inventive enough to do it well: Watching his vain, fussy Nick Lang is a real pleasure and the prime reason The Hard Way works as a passable overnight rental.

Ironically, Fox’s box office clout was supposed to help bring a larger audience to critics’ favorite James Woods, but that actor just bangs around in confusion, as if he expected his lines actually to have substance. Fox, on the other hand, sails against The Hard Way‘s idiocy so adroitly that you have to admire his grace. That deftness may not save him from forgettable blips like this one, but with luck, it will keep him from the lost likes of Oscar. C

The Hard Way
  • Movie
  • 111 minutes