Don’t hunt what you can’t kill: John Woo’s ‘Hard Target’

When Nat Binder (Yancy Butler) comes to New Orleans looking for her long-time estranged, now missing, father, she didn’t expect to find out he was homeless. She certainly didn’t suspect he has become the victim of one of the hunts for the ever popular Most Dangerous Game non-American (possibly even European!) bad guys Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and Pik van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo) hold for their rich perverted clients. Their particular shtick is that the hunt’s designated prey consists exclusively of former military personnel who have fallen on hard times; don’t worry though, they’re certainly not going to play fair when helping their clientele getting their victim.

Given how little Fouchon and his cronies care for human life (or a sensible way to keep their hunts secret, now that I think about it), Nat would probably have a rather short life too, if she didn’t fall in early with former special forces super Cajun Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose accent is totally not Belgian, no sir), a man quite able to turn the tables on these particular hunters. Well, he was born on the Bayou, etc.

Oh, I still remember how cranky I was when John Woo’s move to Hollywood turned out the way that it did, with the director seemingly trading downwards in every aspect of filmmaking, and quickly turning all his stylistic idiosyncrasies into mere tics and shtick. Now, more than twenty years later, it has become quite a bit easier to look at the resulting films with a more fair eye, and to possibly even enjoy them.

Sure, the part where Woo’s films were now seemingly crapping doves without any good reason (turns out when you overuse a metaphor this much, it ends up signifying nothing whatsoever) is still there, but when I start to let myself be dissuaded by a handful of random dove appearances, I really should stop watching the kind of films I do. But then, Woo’s particular style of dance-like ultra-violence and slow motion melodrama always was and is a thing teetering on the border of self-parody, as directorial styles following the dogma that style is substance (which I am wont to believe in too) inevitably must be; it’s a question of individual taste where awesome stylized gun opera starts and where the silly nonsense begins, or if there’s indeed an difference between them that matters.

Re-watching Hard Target after a decade or so, I realized how close the film actually is to Woo’s Hong Kong work, or rather, how much those films traded in the same kind of silliness and excess. I also realized I’m now very much willing to just go with the sort of world where doves teleport in at the slightest provocation, where crossbow bolts inevitably fly around in slow motion, where gun hands are positioned in the most improbable ways, and where things explode or catch fire for the slightest of reasons, even when the film these things happen in was made in the USA. In fact, I’m at a point in my always regressing taste where I find stuff like this absolutely lovely, and wouldn’t have the film any other way. Particularly when these tasty morsels come with an added dose of kitschy (but not necessarily untrue) poverty porn, the (true) insight that all rich people are evil while the poor have dignity and interesting haircuts, as well as a scene where Wilford Brimley rides in with bow and arrow like a particularly absurd version of the cavalry, and shoots as if he were trying out for the role of Old Man Hawkeye. Indeed, that’s all included in the film – even the Brimley stuff that somehow didn’t manage to give 17-year old me (who took these things far more seriously in exactly the wrong way than I do now) a hernia when I watched it way back when in 1993. The resulting film is indeed pretty darn great.

This does – of course – have a lot to do with some other things Woo still was perfectly capable of when he went to the US. Namely, shooting damn great, tight yet overblown (or is it the other way around) action sequences that never bog down in self indulgence so much they are ever anything less than riveting. Woo has an eye for the set piece, a heart for the melodramatic impact of the physical action, for turning a potentially clichéd shoot-out into something memorable by just the right choice of scenery and props, and a – one suspects intrinsic – knowledge of just the appropriate rhythms between camera movement, the bodies of his stunt actors and actors, and editing. There’s absolutely nothing that isn’t great about the action here.

Woo even finds it in his heart to indulge his star’s greatest weakness, and let’s JCVD do That Kick again, and again, and again. It seems to have been an excellent way to get the man to relax in front of the camera too – at least Van Damme does some of his better acting work here. Why, even his one-liner delivery is for once spot on and even charming. The rest of the cast (except for Yancy Butler who has very pretty eyes and exclusively acts by widening them and letting her mouth pop open and shut randomly) is rather great too, with Henriksen giving one of his patented villain performances with great gusto, and Vosloo working as the perfect foil, while Brimford is appropriately absurd (that’s a compliment), and everybody else dies quite enthusiastically.

So, I’m sorry to add another failure to the list, past me, but you were wrong again. Hard Target is pretty damn great.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Van Dammed: Legionnaire (1998)

VideoPoster1925. Thanks to a combination of bad luck and bad planning, boxer Alain’s (Jean-Claude Van Damme) attempt to flee to America with the abused girlfriend (Ana Sofrenovic) of a Parisian gangster, who also happens to be the woman Alain once left standing at the altar, ends with the Alain’s best friend as well as the gangster’s right hand man/brother/I’m not sure dead, the girl back in the gangster’s hand, and the gangster in a very vengeful mood.

Alain sees joining the French Foreign Legion very very quickly as his only way out, so he soon ends up in beautiful Morocco, going through the usual trials and tribulations of basic training, including malevolent Germans (the film really doesn’t seem to like us much), before he can even begin to do imperialism’s dirty deeds. During training, Alain grows close to African-American Luther (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a man foolishly hoping for less racism in the Legion, former British officer and owner of a gambling problem Mackintosh (Nicholas Farrell), and Italian Guido (Daniel Caltagirone), a character whose propensity to show around a photo of his fiancé whenever he can dooms him from the start.

Together, the friends try to survive incompetent officers, Berber attacks, and the vagaries of their own psychological damages; and these are just the problems they have before some of the gangster’s men arrive, at which point betrayal might become an additional problem, though one that might be less important than it seems once our heroes (or what’s left of them) has to survive actual military action, something the French Legion – the one of this film at least – does not look particularly well prepared for.

If you go into Peter MacDonald’s Legionnaire expecting your typical Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle (not that there’s anything wrong with them), you’ll probably be sorely disappointed, for the only thing the film at hand shares with one of those apart from Van Damme is its love for the “redemption by having everyone you care about getting slaughtered” plotline, though even this comes in a variation that doesn’t care for or about the usually ensuing vengeance of the hero at the end; if you think about it, it’s actually a morally superior kind of redemption. What we have here instead is a movie that goes back to style, form, and plot of the legionnaire films of decades earlier, with a lot of emphasis on the melodrama of male friendship, and, this being a JCVD film, our hero’s naked ass and buff chest. By now, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen JCVD’s behind as often and closely as the breasts of a lot of female exploitation movie actresses, which, despite my general disinterest in male anatomy, seems like a very good and inclusive thing to me. But I digress.

MacDonald and writer Sheldon Lettich (well, and supposed story co-author Van Damme, but you know how it goes with co-writing and producer credits for lead actors) actually take the old-fashioned sub-genre they are working in here quite seriously, making no attempts to squeeze in ways for Van Damme to do the splits or use THAT KICK that just wouldn’t fit into the film at all, but instead take Van Damme seriously as an actor of limited range but some experience and charisma perfectly able to play his role straight without a need to distract us with more than his bum. JCVD uses the opportunity well, turning Alain into a guy to root for, which is all I ever ask of my movies, and is often not what I get from action movies (a genre that still applies to Legionnaire in the broadest sense). He is of course helped by some good performances by Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Farrell and Caltagirone, whose efforts keep him away from the slight stiffness Van Damme’s performances often tend to slip into.

Despite neither the characters nor their fates being any kind of surprise, MacDonald manages to interest an audience (well, at least me) by virtue of careful and natural feeling use of the clichés they are made from; there’s a degree of actual human warmth in the scenes establishing the friendship of the main characters that gives their expected demise a degree of emotional resonance I found rather unexpected. As always, it pays off if a film cares enough about its characters to make its audience care too. It also – always and in this particular case – pays off when a film in the business of dramatizing men throwing their lives away for “honour” interprets “honour” as “acting like a decent human being in situations not conducive to it”.

Larger amounts of violence only arrive in the film’s final third, once the characters stumble into one of those siege situations you’ll nearly always get in a legionnaire movie. Once the action starts, it becomes quite clear that MacDonald (also responsible for Rambo 3, by the way) knows what he’s doing in this regard too. While there’s no ultra-spectacular set piece,Legionnaire is very good at making its few battles short, chaotic, and violent without confusing its audience about what’s going on; these scenes fulfil their function in the plot well, yet are also staged in a way making it clear they are not meant to be the core or heart of the movie they are in.

There is, of course, something deeply problematic about even the movie’s slight glorification of an institution like the Foreign Legion, an organization I find practically impossible not to describe with a phrase like “crushing boot of imperialism”. The film contains some slight nods towards the idea that, you know, perhaps the “rebelling” Berbers are just protecting themselves from brutal oppression, and even allow them to be the enablers of what little of a happy end there is by virtue of actually having virtues. For most of the time, however, the film is making its life a little too easy for my tastes by just ignoring the politics of the situation and only looking at the personal of its legionnaire heroes without truly connecting both things.

Still, despite these slight misgivings, Legionnaire is not just an excellent example of what Jean-Claude Van Damme is capable of in the right environment, but a fruitful and effective exploration of a more melodramatic and emotionally complex style of male friendship based movies (surely, there must be a better word for this than the horrible “bromance”?) than the usual buddy movie style you get in US action films.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

U.F.O. (2012)

Warning: if you’re looking for a “Van Damme movie” with this one, you’ll be horribly disappointed. This is rather a movie in which Van Damme’s daughter plays a lead role and Dad pops in for a cameo, as any responsible father would.

British friends Michael (Sean Brosnan), Robin (Simon Phillips), Dana (Maya Grant), Vincent (Jazz Lintott), and American Carrie (Jean-Claude Van Damme’s daughter Bianca Bree), whom Michael just picked up, probably expected their night out on the town to end with mere hangovers the next day. They get their hangovers all right, but the following morning also finds the area they’re living in, and who knows how much of the UK, without electricity, without working phones, and without cellphone coverage. There’s also a curious encounter with a ranting tramp (Sean Pertwee in another of the film’s cameos) and his spirited yet vague ravings about the end of days. It’s more than enough to put everyone on edge, yet on the other hand, how bad can things actually be?

The next day, things become even more curious when all clocks stop and a giant UFO begins hovering in the distance. There are no aliens in sight, no directs attacks, no nothing. Still, our protagonists decide that it’s time to stock up on supplies and hole up in their house until they find something better to do. From here on out, everything fastly turns bad for everyone involved: people, it turns out, don’t need to be attacked directly to start turning on each other very quickly in a situation like this, and soon, our protagonists find themselves confronted with the vagaries of looting, violent assholes, their own violent natures, and a lot of quotidian terror.

And that’s before it turns out there are alien agents around who have taken human form, and the military attacks the alien ship. In between, there’s also time for JCVD to pop in, talk into the camera as is late period Van Damme’s wont, have one actually pretty awesome action scene, and die.

Given that U.F.O.‘s director and writer Dominic Burns was responsible for the pretty damn bad Airborne, I did not go into the film with much optimism. Lowered expectations can lead to positive surprises, but I’m not sure U.F.O. actually needed these lowered expectations to make a positive impression.

Early on U.F.O. is a rather frustrating watch: Burns introduces his main character’s in what may be the most annoying club scene I’ve had to witness in a movie in years, making them look like the kind of total twats you really, really do not want to spend the next ninety minutes with, shakes his camera like an epileptic or a found footage movie, rolls and shimmies and waves his camera around for no particular reason, likes to tilt the camera sideways with no rhyme or reason, and then adds utterly superfluous short flash-forwards in case there’d be anyone left in the audience not already cursing the director after fifteen minutes movie.

Even later, Burns doesn’t let go completely of these directorial tics whose presence I find as much puzzling as I find them annoying, but he does calm down a bit and keeps the shaking to the more dramatic and action scenes (though the choreography of the latter really suggests it would have been quite okay to film them so we can actually see what’s going on), and leaves off the flash forwards (here, have a random shot of Jean-Claude staring into the camera) completely after half of the film is through.

By that point, a few other things about U.F.O. have become better and clearer tooThe badly introduced characters turn out to be a bit more complex and interesting than expected, feeling – though they are based on clear character types – more real and fleshed out than the clichés that often fill our apocalyptic SF/horror films. This even leads to some actual surprises later on: U.F.O. turns out not to be a horror movie where you can tell after ten minutes who will live, who will die, and who will croak first. And that’s not something I can say about many low or high budget horror and SF movies.

Burns’s script is also surprisingly interesting, with a basic survival plot that keeps completely inside genre rules and tropes but – once the film gets going – does quite a few clever things with them and uses the film’s clearly few resources with creativity and imagination, building an invasion (or is it?) scenario that feels more plausible than its actual silliness would suggest. Even the Van Damme cameo is used with dignity and style (in this the film is the antithesis to his appearance in The Expendables 2), giving the man opportunity to do that glowering into the camera thing he has learned to do so well over the years and have a short but sweet fight. Van Damme’s appearance even feels like an actual part of the movie and not something that was shoe-horned in because (one suspects) casting Bree (who is cute and an okay-ish actress here) also provided half a day of JCVD.

When Burns isn’t trying to burn the audience’s eyeballs out with the shaking and the tilting, he has some rather fine directorial moments. The scene with Dana trapped inside the darkened house with something that may or may not be in there with her is particularly suspenseful and tight, even. In fact, it’s at that point (or perhaps two or three scenes earlier) when U.F.O. turns from “neat with moments of horrible direction” into a really likeable low budget movie that’s rather exciting, a bit clever, and absolutely worth it to get through the first thirty or forty minutes.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?