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Hipster Holy Grail: Hard Justice (1995)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter. It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I really liked Hard Justice.  I'm tempted to go nuts and give it a perfect score.  But I suspect that's only because it's such a welcome change of pace from the either mostly terrible or barely-passable movies I've been watching for the HHG the last few months.  Hard Justice is mindless fluff, something I'd sit down and watch the whole way through if it happened to show up on TV, but I wouldn't make a point to revisit it year after year.  Still, as far as B action movies go, this one ranks among the upper tier.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (Not Actually Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

The movie opens in spectacular fashion with Nick Adams (David Bradley), an ATF agent, getting ready to bust up an illegal arms deal being led by the notorious Jimmy Wong (Yuki Okumoto). And that’s about as much as I can really describe of the first ten minutes that’s plot related, because as soon as the two of them are on screen with each other, the movie revs up full speed ahead into action mode.

It’s a pretty great sequence, too. There’s the first of several explosions by minute two, a few cars flip over, people fly back when they get shot, and Nick does all kinds of acrobatic gunfire. He also pulls one of those cool “rolling on a conveyor while shooting” moves, which he then follows up with one of those “running on the rooftops of a bunch of cars parked next to each other as they blow up one by one behind me” moves. And like, I don’t know, twenty people get killed.

In short, it’s a good opening.

It comes to a climax when Nick chases Jimmy out into the street and he grabs an innocent bystander as a hostage. Jimmy forces Nick to lay down his gun, which Nick conceals on his foot so that he can do one of those “spin kick the gun up into my hand and shoot” moves a few minutes later. Unfortunately, Jimmy has his own stock of villainous maneuvers, and he pulls a “surprise, I tossed a live grenade at my hostage” move. The bystander is tragically killed, although the ATF succeeds in arresting Jimmy.

Nick can’t bear the guilt of the bystander’s death, so he speeds off on his motorcycle to brood for awhile. His coworker / possible girlfriend, Hannah (Benita Andre), tries to comfort him. Unfortunately, just as she’s getting Nick out of his funk, she has to cram him right back in there again with some bad news: a mutual friend, Mani, was killed while undercover.

It seems Mani was assigned to get some information out of a local prison, but somebody caught wise and had him killed. There’s few leads as to who was responsible and not very much information about what, specifically, Mani was trying to find out.  Regardless, Nick immediately decides he’s got to avenge Mani’s death and volunteers to take over where Mani left off.

So he goes to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Dickerson (Clabe Hartley), and demands to take the case. Dickerson tries briefly to talk him out of it, but Nick won’t have it any other way. He’s going undercover – and just to make it extra hard (justice), he insists that Dickerson has to keep it a secret between just the two of them. Which is just… the worst. I mean, wow, what a bad idea. If I’m ever forced to go undercover for any reason, law enforcement related or otherwise, I’m telling everyone in my family, a few friends, maybe even a neighbor just in case. I’ll call up an old coworker and say, “Just so you know, I have to go undercover for awhile. If I die mysteriously, please be sure to alert the authorities so people know what was up.”

Anyway. Prison.

Nick and some other convicts are greeted by Warden Pike (Charles Napier), who couldn’t possibly be a villain. Pike makes a big point about how he was a POW for a couple years back in the Vietnam War, and since that was pretty rough, he doesn’t want to hear anybody complain about how bad the conditions are here. To put a fine point on it, he has his lead guard, Riggs (Alon Stivi), whack Nick a few times with his baton, which he lovingly calls “The Ugly Stick” for no good reason.

Nick gets to his cell, where he’s forced to bunk with Mr. Clean (Jim Maniaci), a beefy, bald dude who ironically is not clean at all. Nick and Mr. Clean have a stereotypical “who’s gonna be the bitch” prison conversation, and then get into a fight. A pretty good one, too. They each get in a bunch of good hits until they’re both exhausted, and finally decide to be friends once they realize they’re both former marines.

Later, they have lunch. A couple of prisoners shove Nick around a bit and knock his food away, but he finds some empathy from Squid (Adam Clark), a sociable and irrepressibly happy dude who we’ll later learn is this prison’s Red-from-Shawshank. The other prisoners aren’t happy that Squid decided to give Nick a hand, so they start looming over him menacingly. In retaliation, Nick beats them up, and we get the next action scene as the cafeteria blows up into a riot. Eventually Pike breaks it up and Nick gets another beating.

Once things settle down, Nick goes into detective mode and starts asking around about Mani’s death. He finds out that Mani was Squid’s cell mate. Squid doesn’t want to talk to Nick about him and advises that he leave the topic alone. Despite those warnings, he also drops Nick another clue, which is that another prisoner, Galaxy 500 (Vernon Wells), would know more.

Pike sees Squid and Nick talking and stares at them ominously. Later, the same guys who beat up Nick in the cafeteria corner Squid in the laundry room and rough him up, cutting off a finger and sending him to the recovery ward. These guys also try to jump Nick, so we get another pretty good fight scene that ends with him locking them in a washing machine.

Later, Nick finds Galaxy 500 and asks him about Mani. Galaxy is light on details, but makes it clear to Nick that whoever killed Mani was probably working from or with the outside. Then Nick is told his attorney is visiting, and he finds out that Hannah, posing as a defense lawyer, has tracked him down.  She noticed he wasn’t answering his phone and, between that and his recent outbursts about avenging Mani’s death, figured he probably did something stupid like volunteer himself to go undercover. Nick is briefly frustrated, but happy to see a welcome face.

Then there’s maybe a five or ten minute stretch where there isn’t an action scene and you just see Nick working the case using all his resources, both within the prison and without. Pike has Nick’s cell searched, and there’s a bunch of hardass dialogue as everybody tries to prove how tough they are.

This is around the time a lesser movie might start to slow down and get into a rut. But Hard Justice knows better. Before the pace has a chance to slow down, it throws in a wrinkle: Jimmy Wong shows back up as the newest prisoner, and he immediately learns that Nick is in there with him.

Nick, who’s apparently never seen either an undercover cop movie OR a Charles Napier movie before, goes to Pike to have a private conversation. He reveals his true identity, names Dickerson as “the only other one who knows,” and then says he needs to be evacuated as soon as possible since Jimmy is going to blow his cover. Pike half-sarcastically, half-seriously agrees and tells Nick he’ll be out of there in no time. Then he has Riggs take Nick away to get a shower.

Post-shower, Nick is confronted by Jimmy and three of his acolytes. They fight, and although Nick holds his own pretty well against four people, he’s no match for the knife that Jimmy has hidden on him. Jimmy stabs Nick, and while he’s bleeding into unconsciousness, Pike shows up and reveals himself as corrupt. Then he demands that Jimmy leave Nick alive, as he needs to find out who else knows about Nick and what he’s learned so far. (Side note: I really, really like that the movie did this reveal so early – it’s barely halfway into the movie and they're not even pretending that Charles Napier isn't corrupt. Smart move.)

Nick wakes up in the recovery ward a few days later. Squid’s still there, and they have a friendly chat. Then Nick asks how to escape – which you'd think is a pretty stupid question to casually toss out there.  But as it turns out, Squid totally knows the answer. You just have to sneak through a mystery corridor right around the corner. Why does Squid know this, and why aren’t more prisoners escaping? Who knows.

Nick takes the escape route and gets out to a common yard. He hides under a truck, which is being loaded with crates by some of Jimmy’s goons. The goons talk openly about their plans, stating exactly where the shipment is going and even giving a tracking number to help whoever might be listening find it later. Nick files all that info in his back pocket, then clings onto the bottom of the truck to finish his escape.

Unfortunately, this being a prison with semi-competent people in charge, the guards quickly find that Nick is missing from the recovery ward and put the prison on lockdown. He’s caught before the truck can leave, beaten mercilessly, and tossed into solitary confinement. Somewhere in the ensuing aftermath, he writes down detailed notes on everything he’s learned and passes the notes on to Squid.

Later, Hannah tries to visit and get an update from Nick, but Pike refuses to let her talk to him. She makes the excellent point that denying a prisoner their attorney is illegal, but then Pike makes the excellent counterpoint that he’s a villain and of course he doesn’t give a shit. While Hannah is leaving, Squid passes Nick’s notes to her, and she’s brought up to speed on everything he knows.

Unfortunately, Jimmy sees Squid pass the notes. So Jimmy goes to Pike and asks for permission to murder him. Permission is granted, and in one of the next scenes, Jimmy takes an Uzi out of nowhere and shoots Squid a couple dozen times.

Outside of the prison, Nick’s allies continue to vanish. Hannah does some digging based on Nick’s notes and learns that the shipment those prisoners were preparing is a bunch of weapons that the ATF confiscated, and which were approved for “destruction” by Dickerson. Also, in case you didn’t get it, she finds a Vietnam War era picture of Dickerson and Pike from when they served in the same unit together. And in case you’re still not on board, that picture is tagged with a newspaper article stating that Dickerson and Pike were under investigation for illegal arms dealing, but the charges were dropped. And then, just to be extra, extra sure you’re following, Dickerson shows up and points a gun at Hannah’s head, then says, “Yeah, I’m crooked, sorry about that.”

Cut back to the prison. Nick has been let out of solitary confinement, and while he’s hanging out in his cell with Mr. Clean, Jimmy asks Pike if he can murder Nick yet – he’s been itching to kill him for awhile now and he’s pretty sure they’ve learned all they need. Pike says sure, and gives Jimmy free access to the control panel that opens and closes everybody’s cells. Jimmy opens Nick’s cell, outs him as a cop to everybody else, and then fights him.

Prison riot in 5… 4… 3… 2….

There’s a break in the fight, and Nick and Mr. Clean get to the control panel. They open all the doors and some widespread mayhem and violence ensues. Nick is ostensibly out to catch Jimmy, but he has to make two stops first: one is to watch Mr. Clean get shot down by one of Jimmy’s armed goons, and the second is to pick a fight with Riggs. The Riggs fight is worth mentioning because Nick basically just punches him in the face forty times, and each time he does, the soundtrack hits a loud “DUNH!” stinger note. It’s great.

Somewhere along the way, Nick picks up a couple of guns - they just start showing up right around now, as if there's a guy off screen passing out party favors - and then he finally tracks Jimmy down in a warehouse. There, he has a standoff with Jimmy, followed by Pike, followed by Dickerson. The timing is perfect – it’s like, “Oh, don’t forget this guy is a villain. This guy, too.” Nick puts the pieces together and asks them if he understands their plot correctly: Dickerson transports confiscated and/or surplus weapons to the prison, where Pike sells them to Jimmy, who in return does Pike and Dickerson’s dirty work on the streets. The bad guys all nod and go, “Yeah, pretty much,” and then get ready to kill him. But they can’t do it here for some reason – Pike insists he has to take Nick somewhere else.

Cue Pike pointing two submachine guns into Nick’s back and forcing him through the prison halls while a riot goes on around them. Nobody seems to notice, what with the rioting and all, but then Galaxy 500 decides he’s had enough and he tackles Pike to the ground. (Y’see, Galaxy 500 has friends on the outside who are on Jimmy’s kill list, and he wants to help Nick regardless of whether or not he’s a cop.) Nick is able to get away from Pike long enough to re-arm himself, and then Pike starts opening fire recklessly. He turns into a full-on comic book villain at this point, firing both guns and slaughtering prisoners left and right while saying things like, “I will be your judgment today!” and grim-cackling like a maniac.

And from here, the movie turns back into another relentless action scene, much like the opening. Describing action scenes always winds up being a vain exercise, so I’ll just sum it up like this: Nick kills everyone in glorious fashion, there are explosions, there's a helicopter for some reason, Nick hangs off of it while Hannah somehow figures out how to pilot it, and eventually Nick gets into a gunfight with a speeding bus while leaning out of said helicopter.  The shootout ends when Nick boards the bus and forces it to crash.

All of this culminates with another showdown between Jimmy and Nick, just like the beginning – even to the point that Jimmy is brandishing a live grenade. Except this time Jimmy is holding Hannah as a hostage, and Hannah knows she’s going to get killed if she doesn’t run. So, Hannah elbows Jimmy and dives out of the way while Nick shoots the grenade, which blows Jimmy up. Then, just in case, the grenade also blows up that bus I mentioned earlier, so Jimmy can get killed twice.

The end.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Now this is more like it.

Hard Justice is the movie I’ve been waiting for ever since I started my Justice marathon. It’s an action movie that combines my favorite bad movie tropes with legitimately awesome action scenes. Most of it is brainless and shallow, but that’s not the point – it’s fun as hell with one great fight scene after another.

Hard Justice subscribes to the Jackie Chan philosophy of film, which yields that if you’re casting an actor known primarily for action movies, it’s better to ignore the plot and just find ways to get him to fight people every five minutes. I can’t argue. David Bradley gets to show off all of his skills here, to the point that I think I’d have to say this is the best David Bradley movie I’ve seen.  (The Cyborg Cop trilogy is still on my wait list.)  He has many awesome moments and the movie keeps shoehorning ways for him to kill people in new and more ridiculous situations.

Since this is a 90 minute movie (perfect!), of which at least half are fight scenes, it’s a little hard to analyze it too deeply. You’re either into the action or you’re not, and in this case, I’m fully onboard.

Don’t misunderstand me - the non-action stuff isn’t bad.  Well, I mean, it's not unbearably bad. anyway. Some of it is admittedly pretty stupid and indefensible, like Nick’s inadvisable choice to go running balls-first into the prison with almost no briefing on the situation. And sure, the music is a little corny and some of the movie looks a little cheap from time to time. But who cares? Hard Justice is smart enough to cut that stuff down to a minimum so you never lose focus from its primary goal: beating people up.

This puts Hard Justice squarely in Not Actually Bad Movie territory. If you were watching this for anything other than action scenes, you’d probably say it was stupid. If you go into it expecting a David Bradley movie, you’ll have a hell of a good time.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

On the technical end: it only gets 20 points for obscurity with over 300 IMDb ratings, but it gets my full recommendation bonus of 30 points.  I'll also give it 5 points for David Bradley and another 5 points for having "Justice" in the title.

I'll give it another 10 points for the overall style and content, specifically because of how much the director apes John Woo tropes like slow motion, spinning cameras, shooting with two hands, shooting while rolling on a conveyor, etc.  The mimicry by itself is a bit hipstery - if you wanted to be snotty about it, you could go, "Hmph, Woo's shtick is okay, but I think Greg Yaitanes perfected it."  But what makes it even better is that Hard Justice came out two years before Face/Off, which is also about a cop going undercover in a prison.  The two movies are pretty clearly different, but that wouldn't matter to a hipster.  You can sneer and pull that, "Oh, I liked it better back when it was called 'Hard Justice'" bullshit.

Finally, I'm going to give it an "efficiency" bonus of 10 points.  Hard Justice is not shy about killing people off, so by the end, literally all the cast is dead except for Nick and Hannah.  Hell, after Pike's rampage, I think the movie even manages to kill off all the extras.  This is excellent news if you're planning to set drinking rules.

That adds up to a total of 80 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

As far as I can tell, Hard Justice is not on Youtube or any other major streaming sites as of today.  It is available on DVD, but the price is strangely high.  (I liked the movie a lot, but I don't know if I liked it that much.)  I ended up renting it from Netflix - hopefully they're able to ship it to you, too.