Chaney (Charles Bronson) rides into New Orleans in a car of a freight train, looking for work. Though work is hard to find during the Depression, he's not looking for anything conventional, as seen when he wanders towards the sound of men cheering later that night, and finds a bare knuckle boxing match taking place. One of the fighter's managers is Speed (James Coburn), and when his man is decisively knocked down he has to concede and retires to the nearby diner where Chaney approaches him. He makes him an offer to be his new fighter, and Speed agrees, but only after he sees what he can do - which is quite a lot, as it turns out...
With Walter Hill's directorial debut, he made the inspired choice to pair Charles Bronson and James Coburn; they had been in films together before, but never as a double act like this and the matching of Bronson, who doesn't like to talk, with Coburn, who relishes the dialogue he is given, makes for an excellent contrast. They particularly suit the era the story is set in, as you can believe Speed would be precisely the type of disreputable charmer who would be happy to make his money this way, and Chaney's weatherbeaten features could easily have hailed from the harsh 1930s climate.
Once they team up, Speed sets his sights on beating the fighter of local gambling man Chick Gandil (Michael McGuire), who has an unbeatable brawler working for him, Jim Henry (Robert Tessier) - or so they think. Speed borrows a wad of cash from a loan shark and waves it under Gandil's nose, but although he's interested, he demands that the stakes be raised higher and while he acts outraged, Speed is secretly delighted because now he knows he is interested. With the more than capable Chaney as his combatant, the extra cash is raised.
Of course, it also involves Chaney shooting up a bar in order to secure it, but that's par for the course in a city, in a country even, where violence can be a commodity and a way of getting the upper hand: it's almost institutionalised, even if it is mainly in the shady underworld. Unfortunately for Speed, this means strongarm tactics can be used against him too, and he foolishly doesn't pay his debts. This leads to a curious atmosphere where intimidation is strictly business, and everyone accepts that these men have to do what they can to get by, whether it's beating someone up for money, or otherwise blurring the line between right and wrong.
Bronson was made for this type of role, and as he had lived through the Depression he knew what the part demanded, but there's only one thing that takes away from Hard Times, and that's the entirely superfluous romantic subplot. If you can call it that, there's little evidence of anything much going on between Chaney and hooker Lucy, but she is plainly present to give Bronson's wife Jill Ireland a role, as she has in most of his films after about 1970. This could have been dropped with no harm to the narrative. Mainly you want to see Bronson's almost Zen calm, and its interruptions into using his fists to survive, with the fight scenes looking authentic rather than over the top and over-choreographed. Couple this with Coburn's roguish charm and you have a taut, unsentimental and simple story well told. Music by Barry De Vorzon.