Twenty years on and Hard Target is now regarded as a veritable action classic.
458Twenty years on and Hard Target is now regarded as a veritable action classic.
Back in 1993, however, it marked celebrated Hong Kong action maestro John Woo's troubled Hollywood debut. He'd just come off his tour de force Chow Yun-Fat actioner, Hard Boiled - arguably the best film in his career, and certainly one of the best action thrillers of all time - and found the transition to Hollywood difficult, not least because of the restrictions placed upon him, and the emphasis on front-end management by the production studios, but also because of the problems he encountered whilst working with a diva lead actor.
He wanted, but could not get, Kurt Russell for the lead; Universal Studious insisted upon Jean-Claude Van Damme, who, on a roll after a series of successful martial arts actioners, was gaining a reputation for being something of a Prima Donna (it would take well over a decade, and being cast out of Hollywood Seagal-style, for him to successfully rehab his drug habit and, along the way, drop his cocaine-fuelled ego).
“This money could make you a man again, instead of the shadow of your former self.”
Still, in '93 it was Woo who was the outsider and Van Damme who was the golden boy. Running over schedule and losing an epic boat chase at the bequest of his lead actor (who preferred horses; the boat sequence would be saved for Woo's later Face/Off) the director turned in a first cut which was too long and violent for the studios - earning a dreaded NC-17 by the censors, back in the days when they refused to specify what exactly needed to be changed to secure a more studio-friendly R-rating. Several cuts later and we had a film with considerably less violence and also more of a focus on Van Damme, at the expense of the other actors: reportedly even Van Damme himself sat down with the editors to deliver an alternative cut, which trimmed away the development of the antagonists in the film in favour of more of himself, allegedly because "audiences were paying to see Van Damme, not Lance Henriksen".
To this day fans still peddle a bootleg workprint of one of Woo's earlier, longer cuts in favour of the least cut official version that is currently available - the international cut (which is, both fortunately and unfortunately, the only version that made the 20th Anniversary Blu-ray release). What are you missing? Well, an ill-advised romantic scene with Van Damme's hero doesn't mean much but the longer scenes with the antagonist - talking about his previous hunting experiences against a violent montage backdrop of real-life animal hunting footage - are quite good, as is the added action, not just from a visceral point of view but also because it makes the film far more classically Woo in style.
Still, the official international cut is a great action film even with all the troubles behind the scenes, taking the classic story from The Most Dangerous Game and updating it to a contemporary setting. It's not like you would have made it this far without having seen it -- or at least knowing a little about it - but let's do a little refresher anyway.
“You know why you’re here? You paid us a half a million dollars to find out if you’re alive or dead.”
Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, a merchant ship worker with no fixed abode. He's approached by a young woman, Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler), who is unfamiliar with the dangerous New Orleans streets, to find her father, a war veteran who has gone missing, and who - because he's homeless - the police force, the majority of whom are on strike, don't have any interest in.
What they discover is that Binder was victim to an underground organisation of big game hunters; ex-mercenaries led by Lance Henriksen's Fouchon and his right-hand man, Pik (Arnold Vosloo), who, for a half-a-million dollars a pop, supply the ultimate thrill: hunting a man. With Chance and Natasha now in their cross-hairs the stage is set for a final hunt, but Chance's ex-Special Forces background and childhood knowledge of the Bayou may just see the tables turned and the hunters become the hunted.
“It appears we’ll have one last hunt after all.”
There's a great deal of strength to be found in the simplicity of the story, and it was an inspired decision to forge an outright actioner off the back of such a compelling premise. At a time when many action films were going down the more tried-and-tested Die-Hard-On-A... route (aside from the first two Die Hard movies we had Seagal's Die-Hard-On-A-Ship, Under Siege and Snipes's Die-Hard-On-A-Plane, Passenger 57), Hard Target would take many of the staple ingredients - the underestimated Boy Scout hero with an initially undisclosed combat background, proving to be a suitable monkey-in-the-wrench for an overwhelming group of villainous mercenaries - but spinning it around a slightly different premise: with the Big Game hunters hunting men theme.
Similarly the atmospheric, unusual New Orleans / Bayou setting allowed the piece to stand out from the crowd, providing plenty of interesting, exotic locations for the film's key action set-pieces, whilst also standing as a reminder that even a Pre-Katrina New Orleans was regarded as a dangerous place to be; a convincingly unforgiving stomping ground within which the hunters can track their prey. Indeed, when Henriksen's Fouchon reminds an over-eager client that "This is New Orleans, not Beirut." you wonder whether anybody told John Woo that; his Bayou could easily be regarded as one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
The setting also made for one of the best excuses for Van Damme's always-hard-to-integrate accent. Here he could be Creole, the thick Belgian slant now more understandable (though not always comprehensible) when coming from a New Orleans French native character. In fact I don't know why they didn't just have him speak more French - his scenes opposite Wilford Brimley's surprisingly convincing Bayou Uncle Douvee are easily the most natural; no surprise when you realise it's one of Van Damme's two mother tongues (just to be clear, the other is not English!).
“Let me review the tactical situation for you gentlemen. Boudreaux is wounded. He’s been pursued and harried across miles of open country. Now he’s cornered and outnumbered twenty-to-one. He’s an annoying little f***ing insect and I want him stepped on, hard.”
Although the dual language barrier made their working relationship even more strained than it already was - so much so that Woo opted out of any further projects with him - having Van Damme on board did come with a silver lining, as it meant that Woo could tailor the script to feature considerably more action than before, as well as a hefty chunk of expertly-choreographed martial arts, something that Woo's HK projects had only dabbled in. It certainly lent itself well to the auteur's distinctive balletic action style and, at the same time, probably made Van Damme look the coolest he'd ever looked (and, likely, ever will). 1992's Universal Soldier and 1994's Timecop might have been his biggest hitters at the Box Office but, sandwiched in-between, Hard Target is easily the best action film in his entire career.
Far more harmonious was the relationship between Woo and co-villain actors Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo, the latter two of whom shared such great on-screen chemistry that the producers even pondered the notion of what it might have been like had they had their own movie to play with. Gravely-voiced veteran character actor Henriksen - probably most famous for playing the android Bishop in Aliens or the lead in the Millennium TV series, but also memorable in everything from Terminator to Near Dark, Jennifer 8 to Appaloosa - never quite got to revel in a role as much as in Hard Target, and he thanked Woo entirely for that fact.
“How does it feel to be hunted?”
“You tell me!”
“You should know better!”
Apparently Woo gave him more room to breathe than any other director, and he felt comfortable with every scene - from playing Beethoven to getting set alight for real - and every bit of dialogue (from his many aggressively motivational ‘speeches’ to his simple “You are a f***ing buffalo!”); his inimitably deep tones lending weight to most every scene. And, ironically, the offscreen tension between Van Damme and... well, everybody else, only ended up helping Henriksen find added motivation for his antagonist, to the point where he was able to actually go toe-to-toe with the Muscles from Brussels without it seeming totally farcical.
As his hunting partner, Pik Van Cleef (named after Lee Van Cleef's character in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), The Mummy's Arnold Vosloo was every bit as entertaining as Henriksen's Fouchon, and they made for a convincingly formidable team, with Vosloo chewing up the scenery at every possible opportunity; his guttural South Afrikaan drawl as colourfully distinctive as Henriksen's gravely undertones
“Boudreaux, Boudreaux, Boudreaux... I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Of course, even if you can forgive Van Damme's at-times clumsy dialogue, revel in the outstanding villainy that Henriksen and Vosloo offer up, and enjoy the fairly colourful peripheral contributions - from the aforementioned, ever-watchable, Wilford Brimley (The Thing, The Firm) to TV actor Willie C. Carpenter, who actually manages to evoke a fair amount of sympathy playing one of the more resilient homeless veterans used as prey - there's no avoiding the car crash that is Yancy Butler's heroine.
I don't really know why anybody anywhere at any time thought that Butler could act; indeed it's something telling that she played a robot in her breakthrough TV debut, the series Mann and Machine. Best known for starring opposite Wesley Snipes in the pretty average Drop Zone and for playing the lead character in the comic-based TV series, Witchblade, Hard Target was basically her Big Screen debut and she was terrible. Two looks: wide-eyed (supposed shock) and no emotion whatsoever. She was so wooden she made Van Damme seem tolerable - maybe even good - and Henrikisen and Vosloo positively Thespian. As Chance would say, her acting was "a tragedy".
Still Butler's wide-eyed vacancy isn't a million miles away from what's needed from her super-naive character; complete lack of street smarts and even basic common sense - you have to wonder how she made it this far in life! - it's just a shame as she doesn't really fit in well with the others; all well-chosen for their parts and sharing pretty great on-screen dynamics.
Why am I quibbling over the quality of the stars in such a quintessential action flick? Well, these are all the ingredients that elevate Hard Target above many of its ilk; it holds together as a complete action package, rather than just a string of action scenes that you'd prefer to fast forward to - the premise, the script, the characterisations, Graeme Revell's memorable score and, of course, John Woo's distinctive directorial style.
“There’s isn’t a country in the world I haven’t fired a bullet in!”
But, yes, now that you mention it, the action is spectacular. What did you expect? This is a frakking John Woo film after all!! Renowned for his pyrotechnics, this is the filmmaker who prefers his explosives to be ten times as powerful as those his US counterparts use. It may seem excessive, but it's also a whole lot of fun. Shooting a seemingly standard assault rifle from a helicopter at a guy riding a horse through a forest? Watch the trees explode in fireworks like it was the Fourth of July. Or oil drums soar into the air like rockets whenever Henriksen's Fouchon unleashes his single-shot Thompson Centre Contender pistol.
All of the major set-pieces are perfectly framed too, both in the execution and in the build-up, with Woo slo-mo'ing and freeze-framing his way through not only the action itself, but also the preceding introductions to the characters, locations and weapons. Watch as the hunters slo-mo their way into almost every new location, from the busy city streets to the Bayou shack and the Mardi Gras graveyard. Or Van Damme's Man-With-No-Name-style Western introduction, strolling around in slow motion in his long coat, whipping it back not to reveal a gun holster but his actual leg - which, itself, is the lethal weapon.
“We are stalking an exceptional opponent. Should one of you be lucky enough to bring him down, I’ll consider that hunter’s account paid in full.”
Woo's trademarks too are all present and correct: yes, slo-mo and freeze-frame, but also doves (well, they look like pigeons to me), two-handed gunplay, back-to-back confrontations (where two characters trade words as they reload, separated only by a thin partition), and the lead character anticipating the actions of others through reflections in mirrored objects. Hell, he even incorporated an ear-cutting scene after Tarantino ripped off Woo's City On Fire with his remake, Reservoir Dogs. This may not have been pure HK John Woo - indeed many, quite rightly, regard this as more of a Van Damme film than a Woo one - but there was still enough on offer for fans to revel in.
It's hard to pick the most memorable moments. Do you go for the expertly choreographed intro to Van Damme? It's probably the best martial arts sequence either Van Damme or Woo have ever done. Or the bit where Vosloo and Van Damme first cross paths? You know, where Pik is standing in the doorway, slowly revealed to be standing in Chance's line of sight, a rattlesnake effect going off in the background to heighten the tension. Henriksen persuading his latest victim to be willing prey? Or perhaps the bit where the prey briefly strikes back? What about Van Damme kicking a guy off a bike - in motion?! Or standing on and shooting from a moving bike before diving onto and rolling off a moving truck, landing, spinning around, and shooting it until it explodes?! And that's before we even get to the wall-to-wall action Mardi Gras graveyard finale.
“Hunting season... is over.”
Woo may not have made his best film here - perhaps not even his best US feature, as Face/Off has that edge - but he still worked wonders, making Van Damme into an eminently cool action icon and certainly delivering his best flick, whilst crafting a bona fide action classic in the process. If you haven't seen Hard Target - or just haven't seen it in a while - then I strongly recommend you hunt it down now.
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