A brooding hero squares up to some low level thugs to not only teach them a lesson in manners and protect a woman in danger, but to show us, the audience, how much this humble crusader of justice can truly kick ass. It’s a scene from a million action movies and everyone who’s ever starred in one has done at least a couple of these highly cliched, but vital moments of high octane cinema. However, what makes Hard Target’s version of this well worn trope stand out from the rest of it’s 90’s ilk is that THIS scene is orchestrated but action maestro John Woo in his 1993 American debut.
As the impressively named Chance (“My mama took one.”) Boudreaux, Belgium spin kicking superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme measures up his opponents, draws back his long coat like a gunslinger, and then unleashes a breathtakingly elegant beat down on the quartet of thugs all to Graham Revell’s twanging, bluegrass inspired score.
Taking such an overused staple of American action cinema and infusing it with renewed vigour is essentially what Hard Target is all about; Woo’s frantic staging of all the frenetic rough housing spruses up what is essentially yet another retelling of “The Most Dangerous Game”, where the rich hunt the poor but with much more people catching feet in the face. It ain’t art and it ain’t Hard Boiled, The Killer or Face/Off but it IS a ton of fun, even if it takes a little too long to get going.
In the streets of New Orleans, homeless men with military backgrounds are being enlisted to be hunted through the streets by the rich who are willing to pay for this “honor”. Run by sinister organiser Fouchon and his number two, Van Cleef, this rather unique business ventre hits a snag when the daughter of one of their victims comes searching for her father and threatens to expose this clandestine and extreme version of bum fighting.
However, proud, out of work, merchant seaman (no, really) Chance agrees to help her when Fouchon and his thugs descend upon them in a hail of bullets and the two have to avoid explosions, arrows and firepower of varying calibre to stay alive as the inadvertently provide the bad guys with their toughest hunt yet.
The movie, bless it’s little cotton socks, obviously thinks it has some poignant message about how we should we should be treating the homeless in our society but the script ends up being as thoughtful and nuanced as a dirty limmerick and thankfully the film finally weighs in with some noisy lunacy after the film starts to noticably drag in it’s first half.
While the muscles from Brussels has never been particularly known for his thespian talents, Hard Target turns out being almost the perfect vehicle for him thanks to a few memorable scenes with Yancy Butler – one of which involves saving her from a fatal bite by punching a poisonous serpent clean in the face. When Van Damme isn’t out in the middle of the forest beating his snake in front of a horrified looking woman (come on now guys… keep it clean), he’s dealing swift and awesome justice to the endless amount of thugs trying to bring him down.
Woo’s staging of Van Damme’s crowd pleasing leg work may be the coolest he’s ever looked on film as he alternates between taking out his enemies with his patented, slow motion roundhouse kicks and using copious amounts of gunfire to hollow out their chest cavities like pumpkins. It’s doesn’t stop there as we watch JCVD face-kick a man off a motorcycle while somehow not breaking his foot on the guy’s crash helmet only to surf the bike down an underpass while shooting at other bad guys only to leap over their van and pop a bullet in the gas tank – it’s dizzily stupid stuff but filmed with such style you can’t help but forgive the blatant stupidity. In fact, Woo demands you embrace it, why else would he have Van Damme stalk around with a shockingly greasy looking mullet while claiming to be of Cajun descent, hoping to explain away THAT accent. (“Wat akzent?” He amusingly replies when questioned about the verbal gumbo tumbling out of his mouth)
In some magnificently misguided attempt to further support this, the film enlists Wilford “diabetes” Brimley to be his uncle, who proceeds to roar at everyone in broken French while twanging arrows in every direction – but the shot of him actually riding an actual horse at full gallop as a massive explosion rocks the stratosphere (in slow motion, naturally) is worth the price of admission alone.
Another place where Hard Target scores big is in it’s villian department with quintessential 90’s villain Lance Henricksen going above and beyond the call of duty with his snarling Fouchon and at one point is actually set on FIRE for REALSIES while screaming commands at his subordinates as flames visibly lick the back of his neck. Unable to match JCVD’s flurry of kicks, Henricksen employs a deranged, iron will – pushing himself and his large amount of employees endlessly forward into certain death (Where is he getting the money from to hire all these guys? I bet a tenner they don’t have dental.) and manages to be a credible threat by sheer insane bluster alone. Countering this maelstrom of teeth-baring villainy is The Mummy himself, Arnold Vosloo as the MUCH more reserved henchman who engages in a duel of opposing accents with our hero as his soft, smooth South African drawl goes head to head with Van Damme’s trademark butchering of the english language. In comparison, all heroine Yancy Butler is called on to do is look confused and duck during the gonzo climax when the bullets start to fall like hail.
Set in a warehouse graveyard for old Mardi Gras floats, the final, epic shoot out may possibly be Woo’s best looking climax to date with fire, explosions and JCVD shooting people from a giant, paper mache pelican that descends from the ceiling. It’s a literally barnstorming finale that’s somewhat let down by it’s first half where we wait for the main characters and a VERY SLOW police detective to catch up on the heinous murder plot that we already knew about five minutes after the film began.
Still, it got Woo his foot in the door in the US and as Van Damme spectacularly blows away hunting obsessed millionaires (all kitted out with mirrored shades, horrific shirts and fat cigars like they’ve just wandered out from a political cartoon) with reckless abandon, Hard Target signified the first of a trilogy of big budget action epics that temporarily put him into the cinematic big leagues (the others being Timecop and Sudden Death) before his subsequent spiral into direct to video Hell.
It sure isn’t perfect but dive straight into the second half and you have a minor action classic that sees a legitimately world-class directorial visionary slimming it to giddy effect.
Flawed, yes. But if it isn’t a metric ton of crazy fun, then I’ll be Van Dammed…