Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Before he had an Oscar sitting on his shelf, before his Coke advertisements, and before his career began to take a downward turn with poor choices and missed opportunities, Adrien Brody was one of the most exciting and interesting young American actors to come out of the nineties. Arguably his greatest work came in 2001with the intense and sometimes remarkable Love The Hard Way, a film that sat on the shelf for over two years before all but disappearing after its brief theatrical run in 2003.
Based on a cult Chinese novel from the eighties, directed by a German filmmaker, co-written by a French writer, and shot on location in New York with mostly American actors, Love the Hard Way is a hard film to categorize. Harking back to the character studies of flawed men that populated America films in the seventies, as well the haunting traveling isolation that propelled so much of the German New Wave of the same period, Love the Hard Way failed to captivate modern audiences and critics who routinely reject both styles during its brief release five years ago.
Love the Hard Way got its start as a Chinese novel from author Wang Shuo entitled Yi Ban Shi Huo Yan, Yi Ban Shi Hai Shui. Refashioned as a New York crime and love story centering on a corrosive love affair between a small time thief and a naïve young college student, director Peter Sehr and Marie Noelle’s script would have to be considered a loose adaptation of Shuo's work at best, although to my eyes it is an incredibly successful one.
Born in Bad Koenig in 1951, writer and director Peter Sehr started out his career in film as a Second Assistant director on several German productions in the mid to late eighties. He made his debut as a writer and director with 1991’s acclaimed The Serbian Girl. He followed that production with the award winning Kaspar Hauser (only slighted related to Herzog’s famed film) in 1996 before his attentions turned to collaborations with his new bride (French writer, filmmaker and producer Marie Noelle), began with 1997’s Obsession (a film that featured an early role for future James Bond star Daniel Craig). Love the Hard Way would mark the couple's second major film together when they got international co-financing for it in 2000.
Shot on location in and around The Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan less than a year before 9-11, Love The Hard Way captures New York City at a very specific time and, even now, less than a decade later it is hard to not look at the film as being a snapshot of a city undergoing remarkable and sometimes unfortunate change. Sehr manages to capture some of the remaining griminess that was still apparent in the city (which allows his film to recall the works of both Scorsese and Ferrara) but the ‘new’ New York is also rearing its polished head, and the collision of the two make Love the Hard Way one of the essential New York films of the decade, if one of the least seen.
The New York of 2000 is indeed captured very nicely by award winning French cinematographer Guy Dufaux, who finds just the right mixture between shadowy noir and urban realism, and composer Dahoud Darien supplies the film with an excellent mixture of Trip and Hip-Hop, that Sehr wisely allows to often act as the character’s internal monologues rather than the unnecessary voice-overs that have plagued so many of the ‘neo-noirs’ that have landed since Pulp Fiction. None of this would have mattered though had Sehr and Noelle miscast the film, as it is finally a potent charcater piece, but thankfully the two leads they found seemed custom made for their roles.
Adrien Brody had an aura about him as the nineties were giving way to the new decade and many of us thought that he was going to turn into one of the finest actors of his generation. Scene stealing roles in films like Adam Bernstein’s Six Ways to Sunday and Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam showed him as a remarkably inventive and charismatic actor who seemed as versatile as he was handsome. Since winning his much deserved Academy Award for Polanski’s brave and heartfelt The Pianist in 2002, Brody’s career has failed to live up to his early promise. Quality performances have been given by him in John Maybury’s woefully undervalued The Jacket (2005) and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007) but more often than not Brody has seemed slightly neutered since his Oscar win. His work for Sehr in Love the Hard Way though is anything but, as Brody is totally captivating and believable as the sometimes cruel but always likable Jack Grace, a clever small time thief who holds secret ambitions to be a writer and escape from the life he has made for himself.
Perhaps even more impressive than Brody is co-star Charlotte Ayanna, a wonderfully subtle actress too often mis-cast and underused in films. Just 24 when she shot Love the Hard Way, the very admirable in real life Ayanna (her book written about her struggles as a foster child is highly recommended) turns in a great and sometimes grueling performance as a young woman so possessed by her love for Jack Grace that she is willing to completely sacrifice her hopes, dreams, dignity and maybe even her life for him.
While the film is controlled by Brody and Ayanna in front of the cameras, the supporting cast is impressive as well and includes nice turns from Jon Seda as Grace’s partner in crime Charlie, August Diehl and a small but effective turn from legendary Pam Grier as the cop who first wants to take Grace down but who finds herself finally sympathizing and helping him.
Not taking away anything from Sehr’s direction, or the cast, the real star of Love The Hard Way is editor Christian Nauheimer whose work here is quite remarkable. A relative novice when Love the Hard Way was shot, German born Nauheimer delivers some real exciting and sometimes extremely subtle cutting to the film. Especially noteworthy is the first love scene between Brody and Ayanna that recalls Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and perfectly captures both the anticipation and recalling of one’s first sexual encounter. Nauheimer also manages the tricky feat of switching the film’s expected point of view from Brody’s character to Ayanna, something that is both refreshing and necessary for the film’s subtext of losing oneself in another.
Love the Hard Way premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in late 2001 where, despite winning a Silver Leopard for Sehr, it failed to find a distributor. The film played several such festivals throughout the next year or so where it received more awards and acclaim, but it wasn’t until it landed at The Cannes Film Festival in mid 2003 that it finally sparked some interest in a proper American release. Mostly due to Brody’s then recent Oscar win Kino picked the film up for home video release and, after a very brief theatrical run, it finally came out in the States in the fall of 2003.
Critics who caught the film in its brief run in 2003 were mostly unkind to Sehr’s out of place film, with Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper, J.R. Jones and a handful of others accepted, and its never found much of an audience on DVD. Thankfully though for those interested in seeking out the film, the DVD is a nice one and includes a terrific hour long documentary, as well as a selection of deleted scenes.
I really admire Love the Hard Way and, despite a couple of minor missteps in it's 104 minute running time, have revisited it often since I first saw it several years ago. Honestly it’s the kind of film I could have developed a major emotional attachment too had I seen it as a teenager. Containing the best work of two of America’s most interesting young actors, Adrien Brody and Charlotte Ayanna, as well as an emotional and adult honesty rarely seen anymore in American films, Peter Sehr’s Love the Hard Way is one of the most intriguing under the radar films of the decade.