The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hard Times

In one of the first reviews I did a couple years ago, I said Charles Bronson is cooler than you. He was....that's all.  There's no argument or counter. Charles Bronson was cool as hell.  Later in his career, he got into a rut of Death Wish and Family of Cops movies, but in his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s there were few actors who were as popular as the coal-miner turned action star. He wasn't a great actor in the traditional sense, usually playing quiet anti-heroes who rose to the occasion as needed. But at his best, he was a brewing, intense presence of an actor, especially in 1975's Hard Times.

Whenever you read a list of 'Guy's Movies,' this should be at or near the top. This is a prototypical, definition of a guy's movie.  Tough guy actors, brutal story about street fighting, and without much in the way of romance or wasted subplots that go nowhere. If you're going to stop reading this review, here you go. 'Times' is 93 minutes of Charles Bronson whaling on people in knock-down, vicious street fights. Okay, it's more than that...but not by much. Who better to direct this guy's flick than Walter Hill? He was an underrated master at straightforward, hard-edged movies heavy on action and violence. In his directorial debut, Hill definitely comes out swinging -- pun intended.

A drifter and a loner traveling through 1933 Great Depression-riddled America, a man named Chaney (Bronson) jumps off a train and walks into a small Southern town. Looking to make some traveling money, he gets into a street fight, winning with one brutal, efficient knockout punch. There he meets Speed (James Coburn), a gambler, businessman and all-around con man, forming a partnership with the potential for lots of money to be made quickly. With opium-addicted trainer and cut man, Poe (Strother Martin), along, Chaney goes to work, and no one can stop him in a fight. He's just looking for some money though, and nothing else. No fame, no notoriety. Speed on the other hand has a different plan, including a fight worth thousands of dollars against high-stakes gambler and kingpin Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire). Will Chaney go along with it, even when a supposed ringer is brought in?

There is absolutely nothing flashy about this movie. Let's just get that out of the way. Hill isn't interested in it. His movie obviously isn't a documentary, but it definitely has the feel of one. It's a slice of life story, albeit one about a bare-knuckle street fighter. It has a folksy 1970s feel to it, a slice of American history as the country struggles through the Great Depression. Hill films his story entirely in New Orleans and never has a city looked so dirt-poor and grim and still manages to be appealing as New Orleans does here. The look of the movie feels real, not stagey or hokey or done-up like so many movies. The musical score leaves little impression, only making its presence known at the beginning and end. No frills film-making at its best, and no one knows how to do it better than Hill. His focus is on his characters and the harsh world they live in.

A poster at the IMDB actually listed every word Charles Bronson says in the entire movie. I'll say isn't much. Chaney (no first name provided, or needed for that matter) is a man of few words, appropriately enough letting his fists do most of the talking.  Above all else in this movie, I loved this character. He's not showing off his ability or looking for fame. As he explains 'He knocks people down' and he's damn good at it. With little said in the way of words, Bronson makes Chaney sympathetic. We know absolutely nothing about his background or where he came from, and we don't need to know. Like so many Americans, he's had a rough time of it and is trying to keep on living. When asked if he's had a rough time, he answers 'Who hasn't?' We see a glimpse of his humanity with Jill Ireland's Lucy, but only briefly. It's in the end we see his true colors.

So I don't care if it was a movie, and the fights were staged. I want nothing to do with Bronson in a street fight. My uncle first recommended this movie to me, stating 'It's Charles Bronson beating the crap out of people." That's a pretty spot-on description. These fights are vicious, bone-rattling affairs that hurt just watching them. There is a distinct sound, a THWACK! as Bronson's punches land, especially when he throws three punches in quick succession (right! left! right!). A fight with Gandil's top fighter (Robert Tessier) is the most vicious, and an incredible scene to watch. In a grain mill or something of the sort in a fenced-off square ringed by bloodthirsty fans, they go to town. No finesse, no dancing around, just two men throwing hay-makers at each other. The final fight against the ringer, a Chicago fighter named Street (Nick Dimitri), couldn't live up to that prior fight, but still holds its own in terms of emotion and the bigger meaning, what Chaney risks to fight.

More than Bronson and the street fighting though, 'Times' has a lot going for it. Bronson and Coburn had worked together several times before, and here again they show a solid chemistry. Two of the all-time coolest actors working together is never a bad thing. Coburn's Speed is a hustler, almost always ending exactly where he started, with nothing. It's Chaney who has to save him. Martin is typically slick and oily as Poe.  Also watch for Felice Orlandi and Bruce Glover as two loan sharks on Speed's tail. An underrated movie overall, and a great example of how a simple and straightforward storytelling technique can work so well.

Hard Times <---trailer (1975): ***/****

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