Hard Justice (1995)

PLOT: A grief-ridden ATF agent goes undercover as a prison inmate to find his partner’s killers. Will he have time to close the case between shower beatings, prison yard basketball games, and the gastrointestinal issues caused by cafeteria slop?

Director: Greg Yaitanes
Writer: Scott Nicholas Amendolare, Chris Bold
Cast: David Bradley, Yuji Okumoto, Charles Napier, Vernon Wells, Jim Maniaci, Benita Telles, Clabe Hartley, Alon Stivi


Almost nothing in life is easy. Not microwaveable macaroni and cheese (I own a toaster oven). Not Sunday morning (what if you have a hangover)? And certainly not the year 1995; if you want proof, a whopping five films containing the word “hard” were released. One of them was Hard Justice -- a film that combines the directorial chops of Greg Yaitanes, Hong Kong-style action pieces, 40% of the plot from Van Damme’s Death Warrant, and American Ninjalumni David Bradley. “How can I handle all these awesome things at once?” you ask, crying in your microwaveable macaroni and cheese. What -- you thought justice would be easy? Ha! Justice is hard, dummy.

Nick Adams (Bradley), is an ATF agent hot on the heels of gun-running jerkwad Jimmy Wong (Okumoto). After a sting operation goes chaotic, Nick and company are able to bring Wong into custody, but the hostage at the center of their confrontation loses her life. To make matters worse, ATF gal-pal Hannah (Telles) informs Nick that his partner, Manny -- an agent working undercover as an “inmate” in the state penitentiary --  has been knifed to death by unknown assailants. Fueled by guilt, he demands that Chief Dickerson (Hartley) puts him on the same deep cover assignment so that he can root out Manny’s killers.

Once inside, Nick’s struggle to survive is all too real. He becomes fast friends with his rapey cellmate, Mr. Clean (Maniaci), but only after a brutal slug-fest for claim to the top bunk that ends with a discovery of their shared Marine Corps credentials. Nick’s fresh meat status also attracts the unwanted attention of Warden Pike (Napier) and his vicious subordinates. The beatings come swiftly, and due to his anti-authority posturing, his stays in solitary confinement are frequent. As Nick begins to uncover a deadly plot within the prison walls, his old nemesis Wong begins his sentence, and he alone can reveal Nick’s true identity and potentially turn everyone against him.

This film was the tits. The bee's knees. The manatee’s balls. Whatever anatomical euphemism you have for things you find awesome will be uttered during the film’s lean 88-minute runtime. I wrote down the phrase “Hard Justice ain’t fuckin around” four separate times in my viewing notes. While I’d always heard in b-movie action circles that this was not just David Bradley’s best film, but also one of the best action b-movies of the DTV era, I was still surprised by how much I dug it. A big reason for that is the pacing and the plot elements, which Yaitanes juggles well to keep the viewer engaged in what’s happening on the screen. He strikes the right balance between dialogue to move the story forward, and action scenes that help to raise the stakes for the characters.

And those scenes are quite fantastic. From a stylistic standpoint, the action is fun in that melting pot sort of way, when American productions shamelessly ape the blueprints that 1980s Hong Kong flicks provided for both martial arts fights and brainless Western-style shoot-outs. The opening scene of the film owes a lot to the first warehouse gunfight in John Woo’s 1992 film, Hard Boiled, with Nick dropping into the scenery like Chow Yun-fat, and concludes with enough spent shotgun casings to fill a swimming pool. (This is not a complaint; it was a great way to kick off the film). Until the gun-crazy climax, the prison is the backdrop for a number of fights featuring hand-to-hand combat. For me, there were two big stand-outs. Nick and Mr. Clean have their epic disgruntled roommate throw-down and later on, Adams has a brawl in the shower with a gang of thugs that finds him using a towel to counteract their over-aggressive strikes. Does his own towel remain firmly in place despite constant, violent movement? Perhaps to the disappointment of Bradley fangirls and fanboys everywhere, it does.

The supporting cast here was spot-on, with colorful and occasionally strange characters. I could watch Napier bark at subordinates pretty much all day, and he has an especially hammy line while firing twin uzis during a prison riot that had me rolling. Vernon Wells is in prime check-cashing form as the barely lucid prison sage with a Mike Tyson face tattoo, Galaxy 500. Yuji Okumoto, who most will remember as Chozen from the Karate Kid II, is dastardly in that fun movie villain sort of way -- you can tell he’s having a ball in his role. Even the faces I didn’t know were convincing in their characters. Jim Maniaci is amazing as Mr. Clean. Clabe Hartley is an actor about whom I know very little, but he’s apparently moved on from his acting career to work as a successful restaurateur in Venice, California. Somewhat famously, he was involved in separate violent altercations at his restaurant with homeless locals in 2015 -- one bit off part of his finger, and another, just six months later, concussed him with a chair. Who knew the L.A. restaurant business was more dangerous than a David Bradley action movie?


Before I watched Hard Justice, I thought I had all the answers. That I’d already had my fill of chopsocky prison films. That another Charles Napier prison warden role was one too many. That I didn’t need Vernon Wells adorned in a bad face tattoo with a name ripped off from a Boston-based dream-pop band. Hard Justice showed me how bitter and close-minded I had become as an action movie fan. It's over-the-top in a way that so few action films attempt at all, and it bears its influences without a whiff of self-awareness. Very hard recommend.


Netflix, Amazon, eBay.

6 / 7

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