A black man (Junero Jennings), whose name we discover later is House, escapes from some sort of prison-like facility, and is shot in the process. He forces a couple of Make-Out Kids from a vacant lot nearby to drive him to see Jimmy Lait (former Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown), a wealthy friend who takes him to a hospital (still using the Make-Out Kid's car!). Jimmy's girlfriend Wendy Kane (Sheila Frazier) persuades him to go back to his recording studio; she promises to watch House and call Jimmy if anything changes. It turns out House was being held at the private armed compound of a wealthy man, not a prison. Some henchmen go to the hospital, use a cherry picker to sneak into his room undetected, and assassinate him. Wendy walks into his room just after he's killed, and the men kidnap her.
Jimmy goes to Chicago, visits his friend Jagger Daniels (Fred Williamson) to ask for help, and is ambushed by more of the men from the compound. They go to New York City to get a third friend named Mister Keyes (Jim Kelly) for more assistance, and are attacked a third time. This round, one of the henchmen survives long enough to be interrogated.
Eventually the protagonists discover that House escaped from the compound of Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson), a rich white-supremacist who has hired a scientist to develop a chemical that can be released into the public water supply, that will kill anyone who is "black, brown or tan." The white supremacist is targeting three cities: Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Detroit; all cities with very high black populations.
It's indeed three the hard way: three men, three cities, and a race to stop a genocidal attack before it's too late. Oh yeah, and get Wendy back from Feather.
This film includes the following tropes:
- Angry White Man: Inverted in the case of Feather; he's unfailingly polite. Even though he's a white supremacist, when he talks to Wendy (who is black, and quite rightfully pissed off for being kidnapped by Feather), he never raises his voice or shows the slightest amount of anger or hatred, even though (in other scenes) he's delighted to learn they've developed a method of genocide which will kill millions of black people. Except at the end, when the three heroes have gotten to Feather's compound and he's in full-on Villainous Breakdown mode, and tells one of his mooks to "bring the black bitch" so he can use Wendy as a hostage.
- Ass Kicking Pose: Mister Keyes uses this before he beats up the crooked cops who tried to frame him.
- California Doubling: Jimmy and Jagger chase a mook out of a Chicago "L" train station and around the corner into an arcade. The arcade is actually located in The Pike, an arcade and amusement park that existed in Long Beach, California from the 1930s until early 1990s.
- Dead Man's Trigger Finger: One goon karate-chopped in the DC water plant fires a burst into an ally behind him while falling over.
- Dirty Cop: The police plant drugs in Mister Keyes' car, then attempt to bust him. The police end up painfully regretting the attempt to frame him.
- Don't Ask: When Keyes questions one of the women (see Torture Technician below) what she is carrying in her bag, she looks at him like he's crazy, and says, "Don't Ask."
- Every Car Is a Pinto:
- Two full-sized cars full of mooks are chasing Jimmy through a parking garage. They hit a lot of other cars, but are still able when they get to the top floor to smash through a cinder-block wall and plummet to the ground. One of the cars explodes just from crossing over the wall, the other explodes when it hits the ground. The first car has a second, even bigger explosion when it hits the ground.
- Jimmy is tricked into visiting a phone booth on a vacant lot, and some mooks run him down (destroying the steel and glass booth) with a dump truck. He survives, climbs over the top and throws the passenger mook out the door, while the driver is shooting at the door and roof. The dump truck rolls up a ramp, and explodes when it hits the cardboard front of a billboard.
- Fanservice: When the three chicks on motorcycles (see Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique below) start to try to persuade the mook to talk, they go into the room, and after Jagger and Keyes leave, they strip to the waist, showing bare breasts. When they come out to tell Jagger and Keyes that he's ready to talk, the women are covered in sweat, and are still stripped to the waist.
- Genre Blind: Feather announces to the assembled crowd about their successes with the genocide, and that nothing on earth can stop them now, while blissfully unaware that the three men have killed all the mooks he sent out to the three cities, the genocide never took place, and the heroes are coming to get him.
- Genre Savvy: When Feather discovers The three men have found his compound and are approaching, he orders his scientist to destroy all of his records and notes so that there will be no evidence of his attempts to commit genocide.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: The mooks are typically using fully automatic machine guns or semi-automatic pistols at near point-blank range, and the mooks almost always miss.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: The good guys' weapons kill instantly and seldom miss, even when fired wildly on full-automatic.
- Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Three gorgeous chicks on motorcycles (see Fanservice above) show up to have some fun with one of Feather's mooks. When Keyes asks Jagger if he's dated any of them or if these women might be worth dating, even Jagger admits to him, "they are strictly business; you do not want to know these ladies socially." The women's idea of "fun" so terrifies the mook that he starts talking (see Torture Technician below). Only problem is they kind of scare him into cardiac arrest, and the women are disappointed that their fun ends early.
- Just for Pun: White Supremacist Feather introduces himself as "I'm Mr. Feather. You're probably thinking, light as a feather." Although nothing about his name is actually a pun.
- The Man Is Keeping Us Down: White supremacist Feather has had a scientist develop a race-targeted poison and is going to use it to commit genocide upon blacks.
- Mooks: A cornucopia of classic Blaxploitation foes, including hicks, corrupt racist cops, evil businessmen and neo-Nazis.
- More Dakka: After the three heroes each stop the mooks from poisoning the three water supplies, Jimmy meets Keyes and Jagger with a van delivered by cargo plane. Open the back and it's got more weapons and ammo than a good-sized gun store.
- Neck Snap: Keyes does it to a mook with his bare hands, and another using his feet.
- Nothing Can Stop Us Now!: Feather makes a speech announcing this, not knowing the three heroes each stop the mooks from poisoning the three water supplies and are coming to destroy his ability to repeat the attempt, and put a couple hundred caps in his ass. Oh yeah, and get Wendy back.
- Noodle Implements: We have no idea what the third woman on a motorcycle (see Torture Technician below) has in her bag, but when her and the other women use it to make a mook talk, he's only able to talk for a few minutes before he dies of a heart attack. The ladies are disappointed that the fun they planned to have with the guy was cut short.
- N-Word Privileges: Some of the (white) henchmen refer to blacks with the N-word (among other slurs), but of course they work for a white supremacist, what do you expect?
- Pay Phone: Jimmy is lured to one to try to get Wendy back. He is almost run over by a dump truck.
- Sassy Black Woman: Wendy does not take shit from Feather, despite being his hostage.
- Technical Pacifist: Mister Keyes will kill, but only with his bare hands, feet, etc. If for some reason he finds a gun, he will discard it.
- The '70s: Leisure suits, leather pants, huge afros, even bigger cars.
- They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!: Keyes' first name really is Mister.
- Time Bomb: Feather is going to pollute the water supply of three American cities with an ethnically selective poison. They have to stop him before it's too late.
- Title Drop: As noted in the above, Jimmy admits that this is the situation, "Three The Hard Way": three men to stop three teams of mooks in three cities.
- Torture Technician: The three chicks on motorcycles are going to have some fun with a mook (see Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique above) but have to leave the guy able to talk. Keyes notices that the last woman has a large shoulder bag (see Noodle Implements above). He asks her to tell him what's in it. (To find out what she tells him, see "Don't Ask" above.)
- Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Mister Keys is stopped by a police officer who demands to see his driver's license, leading to this exchange:Cop: "Mister Keys? Now what kind of first name is that? Mister?"Mister Keys: "My mama wanted people to show me respect."