NYPD cop John Moss (Woods) is on the case of a serial killer known as "Party Crasher" (Stephen Lang). After a failed attempt to capture the Crasher in which he is injured, Moss is shown on the news having an obscene outburst. Meanwhile, actor Nick Lang (Fox), known as the star of a popular movie series featuring the hero "Smoking" Joe Gunn, wants to be taken more seriously as an actor, and decides to study under Moss after seeing his outburst on the news. This leads Lang to annoy Moss to no end, as well as making an impression on his girlfriend Susan (Annabella Sciorra) and her daughter Bonnie (Christina Ricci).
The Hard Way provides examples of:
- Badass Boast: The Party Crasher, whose M.O. is not only to kill in public settings, but to call the police and alert them in advance, opens the film with:Operator: 9-1-1 emergency.
Party Crasher: Hello, there! It's me - again! Well, what can I say? I'm about to crash another party!
- He then leaves the pay phone to dangle, ensuring the police can trace his location.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Lang wants to know what it feels like to kill a man. He ends up killing an innocent bystander. Except his gun was loaded with blanks, and the bystander was actually a friend of Moss, who was trying to get Lang to go away. Lang finds out because he has a crisis of conscience at the very last second even with Moss' continuous pressuring to forget it and run away and thus goes back to the police station to confess.
- Nick's Establishing Character Moment on his Hollywood home has him watching an interview with Moss taken after the Party Crasher chase at the beginning, with Moss battered and bloody, and Nick says that that is "real"-the blood, grit and everything, and he wants to reflect that on his films, not be an Invincible Hero. By the near-end of the film, he has been on various shootouts, falsely believed he killed a man, is battered, gritty, bloody and being put on an ambulance because he has been shot.
- Chekhov's Boomerang: The "Smoking Gunn II" ad with a giant replica of Nick's head is one of the obstacles that Moss needs to deal with on the opening race to get to the Party Crasher's latest rampage at the beginning, then the Crasher rams one of the ad's fixtures to get Moss off his getaway car, various scenes happening on Times Square show the ad prominently and the same ad ends up being the site of the climactic battle.
- Cowboy Cop: Moss is a cop with a severe case of explosive rage, driven doggedly to catch the Party Crasher even after being assigned to drive Nick around and taken off the case.
- Disney Villain Death: The Party Crasher is killed like this, falling from the "Smoking Gunn II" advertisement.
- Expy: Joe Gunn is a clear expy of Indiana Jones.
- False Reassurance: When an illegal arms dealer accuses Moss of being a plainclothes cop, Moss averts his suspicions with a rant that he needs a gun because he's being followed everywhere by this guy who wants to be just like him.
- Genre Savvy: As a veteran actor that has made many action movies, Lang warns Moss that the killer will come after him as it's the Third Act. Moss laughs off the warning, as "real criminals stay well away from the police". The Party Crasher being not entirely sane, that's exactly what he does.
- Hand Cannon: The Party Crasher's laser-sighted Wildey Magnum. Also a Rare Gun (so rare that looking into how the Crasher would get a replacement gives Moss a significant lead on the case).
- I Should Write a Book About This: The final scene of the movie shows that the movie's plot was adapted into an In-Universe film titled "The Good, the Badge and the Ugly", starring Nick. Moss' This Is Reality speech is on it.
- It's All About Me: Lang is able to advise Moss that this is the Party Crasher's mentality — all of this death and hell-raising is just to make himself look important in front of the whole world and draw attention. He then tells Moss to mock him on national television and that will make him go into a Villainous Breakdown. It went horribly right.
- Mood Whiplash: See the entry for This Is Reality below
- Reliably Unreliable Guns: Averted. Nick gets lucky in a shootout where a man firing at him seems to run out of bullets. The cop knocks the gun against a newstand, and shoots into it, demonstrating it had merely been jammed.
- Room Full of Crazy: After Moss mocks him on national television and calls him a coward, the Party Crasher completely loses it, turning his room upside down and using his computer to edit a loop of Moss' appearance on TV with a pain program to do stuff like read "DIE!".
- Tag-Along Actor: Nick Lang, wanting to go method for his next project because he feels the "Smoking Gunn" films have painted him as a bad actor.
- This Is Reality:Nick: Ever killed anybody?John: Counting today?Nick: C'mon John. Look, my character kills this guy. It's probably an innocent by-stander. I just want to know what that's like.John: You can't. Not by asking someone.Nick: Will you open up? I just want to know what it feels like to be inside your skin.John: I don't want you inside my skin, you understand? It's private! What's in there belongs to me! You're not gonna learn what it means to be a cop by eating hot dogs and picking your teeth and asking stupid questions. We live this job. It's something we are, not something we do! Every time a cop walks up to a car and has to give a speeding ticket, he know he may have to kill someone or be killed himself. That's not something you step into by strapping on a rubber gun and riding around all day. You get to go back to your million dollar beach house and your bimbos and your blow jobs and you get 17 takes to get it right. We get one take. It lasts our whole lives. We mess it up and we're dead.Nick: (takes out a tape recorder) Fuck, that was great! John, look, can you just say that one more time for me, please?
- Another example of this: Nick manages to give the Party Crasher a Tap on the Head on the climactic battle, only for the Crasher to be too tough for one tap to work, and so he turns, yells "this is not a movie, asshole!" and shoots Nick on the shoulder.
- Title Drop:Brix: You got two ways to do this. You got the easy way, or...John: The hard way.
- Unwanted Assistance: In his attempt to help Moss apprehend a gang, Lang gets them shot at by a rival gang. This does not sit well with Moss.
- What You Are in the Dark: Moss' attempt to scare Lang off by making him believe that he accidentally killed a man and Moss will cover things up for him if he leaves for L.A. right the hell now backfires big time because Lang can't bring himself to do it and goes to the police station to confess.
- Vigilante Man: The Party Crasher tries to paint himself as one (some of his targets have been criminals), and thus "better" than the police, but the fact that he dismisses his killing of a little girl as little more than collateral damage ("casualty of war"), to not mention his general boasting, shows that he is a complete loon.
- Would Hurt a Child: One of the Party Crasher's victims was a four-year old.