It’s hardly Charles Dickens, but still, Hard Times is a real tooth and claw street brawler. We have Charles Bronson as our token taciturn drifter, tough and down on his luck during the Depression. James Coburn is Speed, a fast-talking promoter looking for a quick buck. Walter Hill’s film may not be pretty to look at, but boy is it a lot of fun! Everyone’s favorite supporting scene stealer Strother Martin makes an appearance as a sometime doctor who dropped out of med school. These three men are at the center of an evolving partnership that comes into being on the streets of New Orleans, that hopping town of jazz, juke joints, and bare-knuckle boxing. The latter is the most important for the men aforementioned because, with Speed as his manager and Poe as his ringside doc, Chaney looks to rule the ocean front with his grit and tenacity.
Bars, wharfs, cages, doesn’t matter. If you want him to fight he will, and he’ll win. Quickly any derisive jeers or chants of “old man” go to the wayside as Chaney is quick to pummel and beat back any man who is sent his way. But fighting isn’t all that important to him, it’s just a way to make a living. In fact, that really reflects his entire outlook on life. He has a gal pal (Jill Ireland) who he drops in on from time to time, but it’s nothing too serious, not for him.
He joins forces with Speed only when he’s good and ready. He’s not one to take orders or to allow others to make decisions for him. But it’s in the film’s climatic moments where he is forced into something that he could care less about. Speed’s in trouble with some local mobsters leaning on him. His only outlet is one last fight where Chaney will face off with some new blood in town brought in by the local businessman Chick Gandil.
Chaney is forced to put up all the money he has just to save Speed’s neck and he does it. He finishes the work too, only to walk away from that town in preparation for the next stage of his life as a man who’s never tied down or kept in one place for too long. He boards the northbound train with Speed and Poe grinning from ear to ear because they have never seen anything like him and probably never will again.
The Bronson and Coburn reunion is hardly The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape, but it’s a trifle full with enough action to make it relatively enjoyable. After all, it’s two of the great action stars of the 1960s back together again so it’s bound to be at least watchable. That it is, and it does have its share of tense moments.