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!?