Plot: Chaney (Charles Bronson) is a quiet drifter trying to survive in the Great Depression, not a simple task by any means. He ventures from town to town and seeks out fight circles, where people gamble on bare knuckle brawls between brawny men willing to risk their health for some cash. The tough times bring out the most rugged, dangerous fighters, but Chaney is able to hold his own and when he knocks out one of his opponents in quick fashion, he captures the attention of Speed (James Coburn). He makes an offer to Chaney on the spot, he will arrange a steady stream of fights for the drifter, in exchange for a percentage of the fight purses. Soon the two are on a roll and as Speed sets up opponents, Chaney knocks them down with ease, but Speed struggles to stay honest with Chaney’s share. Can these two unlikely allies make this shaky union work or will Chaney move on to the next town?
Entertainment Value: This one has some grit to it, a down & dirty brawler with a great cast and some hard hitting fight scenes. Hard Times has a good amount of action, but is a story driven picture, so time is taken to weave a narrative and even mix in a little character development. At the same time, the movie makes some wise choices on when to pull back and leave some things unexplored, especially in regard to Bronson’s Chaney and his story threads. That is a tough balance to achieve, but Hard Times is able to hit the mark and give us an interesting narrative, but not overdo the exposition and leave some light mysteries behind. The main stories here are terrific, but not all side threads are as captivating, which is about the only knock on this picture. The atmosphere is tense and feels like a potent mix of action movie, western, and film noir, all blended to effective ends here. The pace stays brisk and the movie knows when to cut loose, so it is never dull in the least and never feels bloated, since it keeps the side stories tight and doesn’t dwell when it doesn’t need to. The fight scenes have a brutal presence, with hard hits and a grounded, authentic texture that draws you in, not to mention Bronson’s ice cold persona and his detached post-fight routines. This is a great one, a well crafted movie on all fronts that earns a high recommendation.
In a movie about rugged, tough guys going for broke in brutal brawls, Charles Bronson manages to stand out as even more of a bad ass than the rest. Bronson was in his fifties here, but is chiseled and jacked, cutting an imposing screen presence that is believable as a world beater. I think he is just a natural choice for this kind of role, his look aside, he has the quiet menace and dynamic presence to make you never want to line up opposite him in a brawl. I think Hard Times plays to his strengths, letting him get by on presence and less dialogue than most roles, but that fits into the narrative well, since James Coburn is the mouthpiece here. Bronson comes off as legit and in a movie like this one, that is more than half the battle. I think fans of his work will have a lot of fun here, as Bronson is perfectly cast as Chaney. Coburn is also a good fit for this role, able to give off just enough sleaziness, but remain likable. He carries the vocal load while Bronson brings the brawn, a solid tandem, to be sure. The cast also includes Jill Ireland, Strother Martin, and Frank MacRae.