By now, I’ve shared most of the reviews I still have from my days as the co-host and co-producer of the early-nineteen-nineties radio show The Reel Thing. This represented a rare instance of tying the weekly home video segment into a new movie review, hence the little break between the two, which was home to a music cue.
Michael J. Fox is a performer struggling to break free of his own image. Through his three trips back to the future, as good-natured high school student Marty McFly, and his Emmy-Award-winning portrayal of eternal Republican Alex P. Keaton on TV’s Family Ties, Fox has firmly established himself into American pop culture. Yet, that pleasant persona is just what Fox is taking shots at in the new home video release The Hard Way.
In the film, Fox plays a spoiled movie star who wants to abandon his fantasy-filled, sequel-ready, light-comedy action films, transitioning to motion pictures with more grit and substance. In order to better prepare for a challenging role in a tough police drama, Fox pulls some strings and gets to tag along with a rough-and-tumble New York cop, played by rough-and-tumble James Woods.
Woods hates Fox, and Fox worships Woods, mimicking every movement he makes. Both actors dig in and send up their respective image with hilarious style. And when the script by Lem Dobbs and Daniel Pyne is able to support the actors with solid material, The Hard Way is a delight to watch. But when the script slips into basic and ridiculous action sequences, John Badham’s crisp direction turns leaden and sluggish, and there’s nothing the actors can do but hope for the film to find its way back to the characters.
The Hard Way is a funny film that deserves a bigger audience on home video than it got in theaters. In its springtime release, moviegoing audiences essentially ignored it, leading to speculation that Fox’s career was sliding away into oblivion, a descent that has at least been slowed by….
…his latest release Doc Hollywood, which has slowly but surely become a minor hit. This time out, Fox is playing a young doctor with his aspiration-filled eyes set on a high-paying, low-credibility cosmetic surgery job in Beverly Hills. On his cross-country road trip from Washington, D.C. to California, Fox gets sidetracked in the small town of Grady, South Carolina when he drives his vintage Ferrari into a brand new white picket fence. It turns out the fence is a construct of Grady’s only judge, who sentences Fox to community service at the local hospital while he’s waiting for his car to be repaired.
As usual, Fox’s comic timing is near perfection. He deserves to be mentioned along with the likes of Billy Crystal and Steve Martin when it comes to discussions of the most gifted comic actors working today. And, unlike some of his least notable films, Fox is surrounded by a first rate ensemble cast working at or near the top of their abilities. Woody Harrelson has his best film role to date as a dependable, rough-edged insurance salesman with a marksman’s eye. Frances Sternhagen is suitably terse as the cynical coffee shop owner. Barnard Hughes plays the town’s gruff, ancient doctor with a self-satisfied swagger. And Bridget Fonda is able to elevate her character past a standard Southern belle by lending her a pronounced case of wanderlust that turns into awkward nervousness when she actually gets a taste of big city life. Best of all is David Ogden Stiers as Grady’s friendly, outgoing mayor, who knows better than anyone what a precious jewel the town really is.
He’s probably fully aware what a precious jewel of a film Doc Hollywood is, as well. Just as Grady’s squash festivals and unique residents inevitably win over Fox’s good doctor, so too does this movie win over the viewer as it unwinds its slow, easy charm. The characters may be filled with eccentricities, but that doesn’t keep them from being eminently likable. And Fox’s romance with the town’s ambulance driver, winningly played by newcomer Julie Warner, is often sweet without becoming overly sappy.
The film sometimes tries too hard to turn the oddities of the locals into laugh-a-minute gags and some plot elements seem oddly abandoned at the end, but Doc Hollywood is still generous when it come to handing out smiles.