Hard Target, action auteur John Woo's first foray into Hollywood filmmaking, was destined to be a compromised project. Recruited from his native Hong Kong after scoring major international hits with The Killer (Dip huet seung hung, 1989) and Hard Boiled (Lat sau san taam, 1992), Woo's action bona fides were never in question: Not since Sam Peckinpah had a director orchestrated the balletics of slow-motion violence with such visual ingenuity, emotional intensity, and swing-for-the-bleachers grandiosity. Yet, those very qualities made him potentially problematic for the Hollywood establishment, as Woo's penchant for melodrama and over-the-top visual flourishes was not exactly the stuff of traditional American action films-especially the red-meat variety that had been popularized by hard-body stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s. The studio also had qualms about the ability of a Chinese director with a limited grasp of English to helm a big-budget project. And then there the fact that Hard Target was set to star Jean-Claude Van Damme, who had already, in his relatively short career, developed a reputation for meddling.
As it turned out, Woo was more than up for the job, and at its best Hard Target bears the hallmarks of his pyrokinetic artistry with as much gleeful aplomb and jaw-dropping outrageousness as his best Hong Kong films. Unfortunately, there are significant portions of Hard Target that are far from Woo's best work, and the film ends up being something of a divided beast, with the first half playing like standard Hollywood action fare punched up every now and then with Woo's signature visual flourishes and the second half playing like an all-out action extravaganza, a symphony of bullet-strewn slow motion and hyper-real physicality. The climatic shootout is pure Woo at his finest, as Van Damme faces down a seemingly endless parade of heavily armed mercenaries in a cavernous warehouse filled with dilapidated Mardi Gras floats and statues, whose decaying, papier mch grotesquerie gives the whole battle a delightfully surrealistic backdrop.
Set in and around New Orleans (ostensibly to explain Van Damme's accent), Hard Target is yet another variation on The Most Dangerous Game (1932), where wealthy sociopaths pay for the privilege to hunt human beings like animals. The idea is given a particularly noxious twist in that the "game" are homeless veterans recruited with the promise of $10,000 if they survive. Of course, the hunt is rigged against them by its organizer, Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen), and his righthand man, Pik Van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo). The plot is set in motion when Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler), the daughter of one of the hunt's victims, shows up in New Orleans to find her father. She recruits Van Damme's Chance Boudreaux, a former Force Recon Marine now working as a merchant seaman, to help her in her quest. As per genre dictates, Chance is something of a reluctant hero; even though he saves Natasha from a group of would-be robbers, he only agrees to help her find her father because he needs money to pay his union dues.
The first half of the film moves along a fairly predictable track as Chance and Natasha follow various clues and eventually reveal the existence of Fouchon's nefarious organization, which has set its sights on another homeless veteran, Elijah Roper (Willie C. Carpenter), who happens to be one of Chance's friends. Also in the mix is May Mitchell (Kasi Lemmons), a police detective who has a decent heart, but is clearly in way over her head. The kind of scenario envisioned in Hard Target can only be remedied by a rogue agent like Chance, and that is precisely what he does in the film's second half, which finds him taking on Fouchon and his army of backwoods mercenaries, an endeavor in which he is aided by Natasha and Clarence Douvee (Wilford Brimley), his bayou shack-dwelling Cajun uncle.
And, if the climactic battle were not so good-so deftly choreographed, edited, and structured-then Hard Target would likely rank among so many of Van Damme's other subpar efforts from the early '90s. So much of the film threatens to sink into mediocrity, and at times Woo's visual stylings feel like misplaced punctuation, asserting themselves in a way that are too self-consciously isolated from the rest of the film. And yet, looking at Hard Target in hindsight, we can see that Woo was building up to the climax, escalating the action and driving the film's aesthetic more and more in line with his own until it finally explodes in the final 20 minutes, delivering a profusion of over-the-top action violence that, if not the equal of what he achieved in the church shoot-out-out in The Killer and the hospital bloodbath in Hard Boiled, is distinctly within their realm. Van Damme has to have his moments of martial arts action, swinging and flipping and roundhouse-kicking bad guys when temporarily out of bullets, but the action truly soars when guns are blazing and blood squibs are exploding (apparently, they blazed and exploded a bit too much for the MPAA, as the film had to go back to the editing room several times before they would give it an R rating). Where one bullet would suffice, we get twelve (or twenty).
But, that is exactly what one should expect from a John Woo actioner. Woo is a master of excess, and any qualms the studio might have had about his ability to manage a major Hollywood production were put to rest with Hard Target, which, despite its shortcomings, is nevertheless an often exhilarating work. It features Van Damme-who had first rocketed to stardom as the so-called "Muscles From Brussles" in Bloodsport (1988)-at the peak of his marquee-toping prowess, and even though he still had a few good films ahead of him, Hard Target is arguably his peak as an action movie star. That stardom is certainly enhanced by Woo's direction, which accentuates Van Damme's screen presence in ways that no other director is likely to have imagined (such as having Chance enter the climactic battle in slow motion, blasting a shotgun while descending from the rafters of the warehouse on a giant papier mch bird). Like Van Damme, Woo was also at the height of his filmmaking prowess, although he was still a few years from his greatest Hollywood achievement, the sublimely absurd Face/Off (1996), which allowed to fully indulge all his proclivities. Hard Target was limited in this regard, but its best moments make the rest more than worth it.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Kino Lorber / Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (3)
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