Just before the wild stunt climax in "The Hard Way," a film that revels in the farcical sparring between an ill-tempered New York cop and the pampered young actor he's been ordered to baby-sit, the movie star manages to mock Hollywood's screwy perceptions of reality and the entire action-film genre in one flurry of silly dialogue.
"It's the third act," the spoiled actor, played by Michael J. Fox, tells James Woods, the angry cop, who's been stalking a maniacal killer. "He's going to come back to decapitate your horse. He's going to boil your rabbit. The killer always gets his revenge in the third act," the actor says, certain that this mad assassin is bound to behave exactly as mad assassins always behave in the movies. The cop just shakes his head in disbelief.
But of course this is a movie. And John Badham, the director of such action-based films as "Blue Thunder," "Short Circuit" and "Bird on a Wire," is the man behind the punch line. Just as Woods begins to rage that real life does not follow some formulaic Hollywood plot structure, the killer does exact his revenge, throwing the protagonists into a ridiculously dangerous stunt on a billboard high above Times Square that spoofs everything from the Mount Rushmore scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" to every deadly predicament of the hoary genre.
"Oh sure, we're poking fun at buddy movies and action movies and all of those things," said Badham, who also took delight in savaging all those actors and directors who take their business too seriously. "I mean, we're not curing cancer here. We're not stopping the war. There is a reason it says, 'A John Badham Movie' on there and not a 'John Badham Film.' They aren't films. Films to me are something with subtitles or they make you depressed for an hour afterwards. Movies are things you go and eat popcorn at and laugh and forget for two hours."
Actually, Badham started out making "films" on television in the early '70s, including "The Law" in 1974, which won a Peabody, Humanitas and Emmy Award as best TV movie of the year. In fact, Badham, who in his tweed coat and black dress shoes looks more like an Ivy League economics professor than a famous action director, said that in those days, the word was, "Don't hire him for action and he can't do comedy because he has no sense of humor."
"So in response I guess I set out to get some things with action and to prove that I could at least make people chuckle," Badham says. "And now it seems the wheel has spun full circle."
Badham's break into features came in 1976 when Steven Spielberg, fresh off of the success of "Jaws," decided not to direct "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Star and Motor Kings." Rob Cohen, Badham's current partner and the producer of that comedy about a barnstorming gang of black baseball players, needed a director fast and grabbed Badham because he admired his TV work.
Badham then dabbled in musicals, turning John Travolta and the Bee Gees into international icons in "Saturday Night Fever," horror ("Dracula"), even "film," ("Whose Life is it Anyway"). It wasn't until 1983, when he filmed a killer helicopter turning loops in the L.A. sky in "Blue Thunder" and then a home computer plunging the world to the brink of nuclear apocalypse in "WarGames," that Badham really earned his action stripes. Between "WarGames" and "The Hard Way," his action film credits include "Short Circuit," "Stakeout" and "Bird on a Wire."
"Action is like a huge kid's toy," Badham says. "You're out there dealing with some outrageous prop and you're trying to do these outrageous things. If you like logistics and gadgets, then you can have a terrific time."
Cohen, who rejoined forces with Badham when they decided to create their own production company in 1988, actually directed some of the action sequences for Badham in both "Bird on a Wire" and "The Hard Way." Though they discuss each scene, each detail, endlessly beforehand, this unusual collaboration is possible because unlike many directors, Cohen said, Badham "doesn't have a paranoid death grip on the material."
Cohen added that what makes Badham a successful director is that he cares more about what the audience wants and needs than about what the world of cinema thinks of him.
"He's not interested in making the camera do gymnastics so that somebody will say what a brilliant director he is," Cohen said. "John Badham never lets anything stand between the movie and the audience, and if he has to become invisible to do that, he gladly gets invisible. That's why he fills up the theaters."