Every era and place has had its hand-to-hand combat based entertainment. Be it the Pankration wrestling of ancient Greece, the Koshti fighting of Persia, or the two lads in a pub carpark while an off duty traffic warden takes bets. Right now it’s MMA that has grab the world’s attention yet it is hardly a new sport; many years before it was the Pick Up Fights, usually illegal street alley bouts for winnings, more Fight Club (1999) than UFC.
Yet it’s these back alley fights we find the setting for Hard Times (1975), re-released on dual-format as part of Eureka’s Master of Cinema collection.

Riding the boxcars of a freight train during the Great Depression, Chaney (Charles Bronson) is a down on his luck drifter making his way across Louisiana. By chance he comes across a Pick up Fight where quick talking hustler Speed (James Coburn) is looking for a fighter. After flooring his opponent quicker than Ali vs. Liston, Speed asks Chaney to help corner the fight scene in New Orleans. Chaney, ever with one eye on the road ahead, goes with it until it’s time to move on, and once in the city starts an uneasy affair with local girl Lucy (Jill Ireland). With the help of a hophead cutman Poe (Strother Martin) Speed and Chaney play a good game, but when greed and loan sharks from Speed’s past turn up, things get dicey. Between the Mob and new challengers, Chaney and Speed find fights become less money, more making it out alive.

In the late Sixites and through most to the Seventies a form of film emerged; the product of the Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll generation that Peter Biskind talks about in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998). They weren’t Action movies per se, in the same way they weren’t Dramas, Crime, Road, Noir, or War Movies. They blended styles, creating something new. They were the Cool Movies, the Rock and Roll movies, the Hells Bells movies back when cinema was a daring art form willing to take chances. Hard Times has it in spades.

The gem of this movie comes from its characters. Chaney is a soft spoken loner of few words and this works perfectly for Bronson just as much as the quick talking and hustling of Speed does for Coburn. It plays to their strengths as actors and it’s unlikely the film would have had the same impact if they had anyone else playing the leads. The back and forth is body language and raised eyebrows with Bronson and wisecrack con artistry with Coburn. Chaney and Jill’s affair has a realistic everyday edge; not a wild romance but one you would see in a hundred thousand places, common place but raw. No doubt helped by Bronson and Jill being husband and wife.

The New Orleans shown is a dirty, brutal town of honky tonks and jazz dives that is collapsing in on itself with the full weight of the Depression. But don’t think it’s a social commentary, more a reflection of the fights and grimy underworld Chaney and Speed find themselves in.

The Disk comes with interviews with director Walter Hill, producer Lawrence Gordon, and composer Barry DeVorzon

Hard Times, a rough and tumble, dirty and brutal fight flick set in the Deep South that you would be mad to miss.

Dir: Walter Hill
Scr: Walter Hill, Bryan Gindoff, Bruce Henstell
Cast: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin
Prd: Lawrence Gordon
DOP: Philip H. Lathrop
Music: Barry DeVorzon
Country: USA
Year: 1975
Run Time: 93 min

Hard Times is available on Dual-Format Disc now

By Pat Fox

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