Home > Reviews > THE HARD WAY – Arthur B. Rubinstein

THE HARD WAY – Arthur B. Rubinstein


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the first star vehicles written for Michael J. Fox to capitalize on his post-Back to the Future popularity was this film, the action-comedy The Hard Way, directed by John Badham. Fox plays Nick Lang, a popular movie star who is researching his next role, playing a tough on-screen detective. As part of his preparation Lang asks to observe a real life tough cop, and is partnered with John Moss, a hard-boiled NYPD veteran, played by James Woods. Moss is irritated by Lang’s superficiality and irritating cheerfulness, and initially grudgingly agrees to go along with things, but soon is trying everything in order to get Nick out of his life – until the pair of them get involved in the case of the so-called Party Crasher, a serial killer targeting women he finds in nightclubs. The film co-starred Stephen Lang and Annabella Sciorra, and featured a genuinely great score by the late Arthur B. Rubinstein.

Rubinstein was another one of those 1980s and 90s composers who never quite broke into the A-List, despite writing consistently entertaining film music. Rubinstein scored several good films for director Badham, including Wargames, Blue Thunder, and Stakeout, and won an Emmy for scoring the TV series ‘The Scarecrow and Mrs. King’ in 1986. The Hard Way was one of the most successful films of Rubinstein’s career, grossing more than $60 million at the box office; the soundtrack also provides one of the most comprehensive overviews of his music, as it combines excellent examples of his three most important styles: progressive jazz, experimental electronica, and powerful writing for orchestra.

The opening cue, “The Big Apple Juice,” is a terrific look at Rubinstein’s jazz writing style, which is probably best described as aggressive and unconventional. Many of the things Rubinstein does have a similar sound and feel to the scores James Horner wrote for the 48 HRS. movies – to the point that I wonder whether parts of The Hard Way were temped with it – and this cue is a cavalcade of tempestuous percussion, wailing saxophones, frantic plucked bass, and freewheeling brass lines that are challenging but rewarding. Later, in “Where Have You Gone, L. Ron,” Rubinstein adopts a moodier, sultrier jazz tone filled with plucked basses, brushed snares, and languid brass performances. The style here reminds me a little of the Eddie Valiant music that Alan Silvestri wrote for Who Framed Roger Rabbit – a little bluesy, with a hangdog, downbeat vibe – which suits its application here as the music underscoring Moss’s marital problems. Some of the instrumental solo textures here are really terrific, virtuoso stuff.

Running parallel to his career in film music was Rubinstein’s membership of the electronica/prog-rock group The Beepers (a group that also included film composers Anthony Marinelli, Brian Banks), and it is this aspect of his musical personality that is inherent in the music for the Party Crasher, the evil serial killer at the center of the story. In “Cirque du Parté Crasher” Rubinstein makes use of a vast array of unusual electronic textures and pulses, many of which have a watery, sinister sound, and which often combine with a sampled saxophone for maximum effect. As the cue progresses it turns into a creepy, unsettling circus march, which sounds funny and dated but also feels weirdly appropriate in context, even as the synthesized duck quacks and cascade waterfall effects take over. The entire ‘cirque’ sequence feels like something Danny Elfman might have written on one of his more offbeat days, but it gives a quirky atmosphere to the whole Party Crasher sub-plot which is unexpectedly creative. Later, in “He Head/She Dead,” Rubinstein takes many of the same electronic textures and combines them with a series of slithery ideas for slide guitars and growling basses, overlaid with pulsing brass, and supported by fast, incessant synth percussion that really adds to the tension.

However, by far the most impressive parts of The Hard Way are the action sequences, of which there are many, accompanying the various car chases, fist fights, and shootouts which Nick and Moss find themselves in. The first serious action cue is “Manhattan Tow-Truck,” which is also the cue that introduces the score’s recurring main theme. The whole sequence dances to groovy, rhythmic, vaguely mysterious electronic tones, but then also introduces a terrific set of pulsing, jazz-inflected ideas into the brass which gives the whole thing a significant level of urban cool. The main theme first starts to appear around the 36 second mark, and is initially carried by violas, but by the end of the cue the majority of the orchestra has joined in the fun, shifting it from strings to brass and back to great effect. The main theme gets another major workout in “Ghetto a la Hollyweird,” where it is arranged for a set of distinctly Zimmer-esque rhythmic ideas for keyboards and pan flutes, with the jazzy main theme above it, where the melody is carried by a solo trumpet and the rhythm by steel drums.

“Transit Authority” marks the turning point in the score, where the orchestra really comes into significant play for the first time, and from this point on the score rarely lets up. Rubinstein’s orchestral action style here is very impressive, focusing on aggressive rhythmic ideas that jump around the percussion section, and spiky writing for strings and brass. Throughout it all Rubinstein continues to insert reprises of the main theme on electric guitar, as well as several fantastic interludes for steel drums, which gives the whole thing more than a hint of 1970s blaxploitation funk. It’s important to point out that this cue, and all the subsequent action cues, features notably intricate, complicated orchestrations that constantly shift into a wide variety of textures, and which are incredibly impressive indeed.

The subsequent “Gas Attack” is a creepy tension and suspense sequence, anchored by a completely unique sampled percussive sound effect that sounds like the gurgling noise a cat makes before it brings up a hairball, and which is then manipulated electronically and rendered via keyboards. Rubinstein combines this sound with pizzicato strings, snare drums, an electronic harpsichord, and Goldsmith-style fading brass textures performing a deconstructed 3-note variant on the main theme, resulting in a wholly unique sound that I have never really encountered before and which is all the more impressive because of it. “Killer Lang” is a moody rendition of the main theme on brass, augmented by dark electroacoustic textures, and then “Smoking Gun II” returns to the jazzy orchestral action writing heard earlier in the score. Again, the orchestrations here are brilliant; there is some very complicated layering of sound going on here, including some notably interesting writing for flutes juxtaposed against brass. I love Rubinstein’s Michael Kamen-esque use of chimes in the percussion section, and the way he constantly shifts the tempo, bringing in new rhythmic patterns under the strings and brass. The moment of horn-led fanfare heroism at the 1:45 mark is terrific, and the sense of movement that runs through it all is really exciting – like the best kind of adult mickey mousing.

The big finale of both film and score is “Top of the World,” which underscores the conclusive fight sequence between Nick, Moss, and the Party Crasher on top of a giant animatronic billboard for Nick’s upcoming film, high above Times Square. The cue is a continuation of the same ideas from the rest of the score, but with even more flamboyant brass writing, and even more vigorous string flurries. The crazily distorted blast of the Frank Sinatra standard ‘New York New York’ at the 0:18 mark is insane, but makes sense in context, and the way Rubinstein combines the orchestra, the jazz, and the electronic Party Crasher music against a deconstruction of the main theme is really impressive. Again, Rubinstein shows so much energy and creativity in the orchestrations, and every section gets a chance to shine.

Finally, “The Good, the Badge and the Ugly” offers a noble and rousing statement of the main theme, wherein the strings are given weight and scope with gongs and anvils and warm horn harmonies. The scene takes place at the premiere of Nick’s film based on his time with Moss – with Moss as guest of honor – and the whole thing has a sense of closure, friendship, and fraternity as befits the relationship between the two protagonists . Everything ends with a lovely orchestral swell, brass backed by tremolo strings, rising to a crescendo. The album is rounded out by two classic rock songs, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” performed by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, and “Run Around Sue” performed by Dion DiMucci.

If you have never heard a score by Arthur B. Rubinstein – and I’ll bet that a large number of people reading this have not – then The Hard Way would be my recommendation for the place to start. As I mentioned earlier it contains great examples of all three compositional styles for which he was best known – jazz, electronica, and action – and presents them in an easily digestible package. Rubinstein died in April 2018, on his 80th birthday, leaving behind a sadly under-represented discography that only comprises seven or eight of the 100+ film and television credits he racked up in his career. He’s a composer that should be better known than he is and, as I said, if you have a mind to explore his work, The Hard Way represents the easy way in.

Buy the Hard Way soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Big Apple Juice (1:54)
  • Cirque du Parté Crasher (1:45)
  • Manhattan Tow-Truck (2:46)
  • Ghetto a la Hollyweird (1:30)
  • He Head/She Dead (1:29)
  • Big Girls Don’t Cry (written by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, performed by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons) (2:23)
  • Where Have You Gone, L. Ron? (3:06)
  • Transit Authority (2:12)
  • Gas Attack (2:08)
  • Killer Lang (1:48)
  • Smoking Gun II (3:29)
  • Top of the World (4:32)
  • The Good, the Badge and the Ugly (1:55)
  • Run Around Sue (written by Ernest Maresca and Dion DiMucci, performed by Dion DiMucci) (2:43)

Running Time: 33 minutes 40 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5315 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by Arthur B. Rubinstein. Orchestrations by Mark Hoder. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick. Edited by John Caper Jr.. Album produced by Arthur B. Rubinstein.

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