Filmed as The Streetfighter but changed to Hard Times in the US to avoid confusion with Sonny Chiba's movie (though still called The Streetfighter in the UK to avoid any raised eyebrows at Bronson trying his hand at Dickens), this is a terrific little movie that never quite got the attention it deserved in the mid-70s. In many ways it's almost a kind of Depression-era Midnight Cowboy with bare-knuckle brawling replacing the sex-for-sale, as James Coburn's ducking and diving street fight promoter teams up with Bronson's drifter and sees his chance at the big time. Naturally it doesn't work out that way, but en route to the inevitable fall debuting director Walter Hill draws a vivid portrait of people trying to survive in brutal times any way they can - with added brutal fights.
The plot and characters aren't particularly complex, but they're vividly drawn, from Coburn's ability to seize financial disaster from the jaws of triumph when his passion for losing his winnings on the crap tables and borrowing from one loan shark to pay another to Strother Martin's eloquent `cut man' who patches up fighters in return for enough money to indulge his drug habit ("This month's financial condition has prevented certain journeys of the imagination"), while Bronson, as ever, says the most without words as the kind of man who never puts down any roots and never looks past the next bend in the road. There's a rich cast of familiar 70s faces among the supporting cast - Robert Tessier, Bruce Glover, Frank McRae, Felice Orlandi - and an elegant turn from Michael McGuire as Coburn's upmarket rival, almost literally a big fish in a little pond who isn't best pleased that he no longer has the best streetfighter in New Orleans. The plotting, like Hill's visual framing, is straightforward but eloquently economical with no sense of padding or waste, so perfectly crafted that you're never left feeling that you haven't got more than your money's worth.
The kind of film that people seem to have forgotten how to make these days, it's definitely more than the sum of its parts, and Twilight Time's Blu-ray release offers an outstandingly good and detailed transfer that really compliments Philip Lathrop's excellent Scope cinematography. Also included are the original trailer, isolated score track and booklet.