James Woods is the personification of intensity. At least, so says virtually anyone who has worked with him.

"He lives over the top already," says Rob Cohen, the co-producer of Woods' newest film, "The Hard Way," which opened in early March. "He lives on the edge. No one can hate like Jimmy Woods.""Jimmy hates being in a vacuum," says the action comedy's director, John Badham. "He cannot be still and listen calmly, even in a reaction shot."

"Intense, just incredibly intense," says co-star Michael J. Fox.

James Woods on James Woods: "What are these guys talking about? They spread around rumors like that just to aggravate you guys in the media. That way, when you see what a relaxed kind of guy I am, you'll be totally confused."

In "The Hard Way," Woods plays a tough New York cop who is partnered temporarily with a pampered Hollywood star (played by Fox) while the latter is researching a role in a police movie.

"OK, now, playing a cop in a movie, maybe I got a little intense. But intensity is cinematic. And I was playing a turbulent character who was dealing with the hard edge of life. So, intensity was bound to sort of creep into the situation."

Intense, yes, but he's also undeniably friendly. When riding up the hotel elevator, Woods jokes with the bellboy and greets the other passenger, delighting in their recognition. When the interview takes a turn toward the much-publicized Sean Young episode, in which the actress stated that they had an affair during the filming of "The Boost" and reportedly harassed the actor and his then-fiancee, he quickly says, "You can stop right there - no personal questions!" But, as with everything, he says it with a smile.

He even maintains his glibness when talking about going on a drug bust with a task force as part of his research for "The Hard Way."

"It was harrowing. In the middle of it, I started worrying about the face masks. I thought we were supposed to have face masks, and when they didn't show up, I got nervous. The old pros said, `When in doubt, just turn around. You won't get it in the face, but you will get it SOMEPLACE ELSE.'

"One thing I did learn is that all those cliches about partners are true. Partners on the police force bicker constantly, like Fred and Ethel Mertz on the old `I Love Lucy' shows. But they like each other, they care about each other and they take it personally when something happens to the other one."

According to Woods, he and co-star Fox didn't even bicker.

"We got along famously, impeccably, the best of friends," Woods says. "I just love Michael. He's funny and bright. We'll be friends forever. He enjoys life. He's got the perfect life - a great wife and kid, great success, incredible riches. He says, `I've hit the lottery, and I'm enjoying it.' You've got to love someone who's that candid about enjoying himself."

Woods emerged from the filming with a higher regard for the police.

"They're trying to bring coldhearted killers to justice, and they're hit on every corner with vague technicalities. I've always played anti-Establishment types, and here I am saying how much I respect the police, but there you are."

He did most of his own stunts for the film, resulting in a couple of broken fingers and torn-up kneecaps.

"I was just a big middle-age fatso trying to show off," says Woods, who is 43. "James Garner (Woods' co-star in the television productions of "Promise" and "My Name Is Bill W.") said, `I did all that when I was your age. Now I've got a bad back and bad knees, and I can hardly turn around without hurting.' So this may be the last time you hear about me doing stunts."

Woods says that he can "taste" the fact that "The Hard Way" is going to be a hit. He needs one. His films - "Salvador," "The Boost," "Immediate Family," "Videodrome," "The Onion Field," "Once Upon a Time in America" - always have drawn respectful reviews. But none has been a box-office bonanza. Nevertheless, his name is firmly planted in the public's consciousness as one of the more flamboyant of actors.

"There are implicit rewards in flamboyant roles. Yet cerebral characters require subtlety - that elusive quality I've been accused of not possessing," says Woods. "One of the hardest roles I've ever played was `Immediate Family,' in which I hardly ever raised my voice or rolled my eyes. Let me tell you, I have never worked harder."