Monday, 9 July 2018

Hard Men (1996)

There ought to be a word for that feeling you have when you can't tell whether you have seen a movie or not. That's the feeling I have watching Hard Men. I certainly recall it coming out in '96 but I didn't think I'd actually seen it. After watching it tonight, so many scenes rang a bell, that I think I may be mistaken. It feels like the eighteen year old me might have seen it with a kebab and a bottle of White Lightning and, given the brain killing properties of 'Quite Frightening', is it any wonder I can't be sure?

Then again, maybe I could be forgiven for thinking I'd seen it before because Hard Men isn't exactly original. In this tale of three lethal, sharp suited cockney hoods out on the town, chatting shit about the etiquette of oral sex and the merits of Abba over Blur whilst plotting a betrayal against one of their number, it is clear that the French born, London based writer/director J.K. Amalou is heavily influenced by Tarantino. But, despite some pretty high praise from the likes of Loaded, Maxim and Marie Claire, his low budget film struggled to find an audience, which is sadly ironic when you consider he had the jump on Guy Ritchie who would do the exact same thing to incredible acclaim just two years later, opening the floodgates of the genre for several imitators to follow.

The film concerns a trio of hitmen and debt collectors; the sensible Tone (Vincent Regan), the professional Bear (Ross Boatman) and the hothead Speed (Lee Ross), who each work for gangland boss Pops Den (played by real-life South London gangster 'Mad' Frankie Fraser). When Tone's ex girlfriend reconnects to tell him he's father to a baby daughter, he decides it is time he should retire and takes his friends out for one last carousal to announce his plans. But Pops Den isn't the kind of person to condone such a resignation and suddenly Tone's last night with the lads is potentially his last night on earth, with Speed and Bear now charged with not only offing him but also with delivering his amputated hand to Pops Den by 9am the following morning.

Amalou has a very arresting and stylised eye for the seamy side of London and outlandish violence that makes Hard Men quite a visually strong addition to the British gangster film, with a cool colour palette combined with an interesting sound design, but he's ultimately weak on getting the audience to truly engage with his characters thanks to their overall unlikeability and some occasionally poor dialogue. It's a shame though to see that his subsequent career has of late consisted of a couple of straight-to-DVD Danny Dyer flicks. For someone who beat Ritchie to it, he deserves more than that.

As for the cast it's easy to see why Vincent Regan went on to become an actor who straddles both a variety of British TV productions and the odd Hollywood blockbuster like 300, as his potential stands out in the role of the sensitive and mature Tone. Ross Boatman, marking time between leaving London's Burning and becoming a rather handy professional poker player with his older brother Barny, is perhaps even better, quietly convincing as Bear in a way that makes me grateful that he's returned to acting in recent years with his great performance as the brother in the BBC2 sitcom Mum. Lee Ross is an actor I normally admire a lot, but here I think he gets a little carried away with the opportunity to overplay Speed's character's jittery coke-fuelled intensity and cockney swagger. Someone like Marc Warren would have perhaps been a more natural and convincing fit. The stunt casting of real-life villain 'Mad' Frankie Fraser as Pops Den is again - when you consider how Guy Ritchie went on to cast Lenny McLean in Lock Stock -  another example of Amalou predicting what was to come, but it is also a deeply contentious one; the showbiz glorification that began to occur in the '90s of once genuinely violent enforcers and murderers is one that has always sat uneasily with me, and I fail to see why the production saw it fit to try and enhance his natural menace with several obviously fake facial scars. There's also an appearance from Ken Campbell that is unforgiveably all too brief - what kind of idiot employs a one-off like Campbell for such a small and insignificant role? That alone should have sealed Hard Men's fate.

Perhaps the best thing about Hard Men is the strapline; You Call. They Deliver. It Ain't Pizzas, but even that doesn't bear much scrutiny, much like the film itself. I am now fairly sure I've seen it before, but I'll mark it as a first watch nonetheless. Perhaps this inability to pin down whether I have or haven't seen it says all there is to know about Hard Men. It's not truly atrocious, but it's nowhere near great either. It's just really rather forgettable. 

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