Eveybody Wants A Gun Like The Killer: Hard Target (1993)

In 2008’s JCVD there is a great line wherein Van Damme is credited with being the man  who brought John Woo from Hong Kong to the states, and while his films since have been hit or miss, I always found Woo’s first stateside effort to be a highly entertaining affair. So this week we start with the film in question, and then for the rest of the month you can look for my reviews of more Woo goodness as we start the Friday Feature I like to call Everybody Wants a Gun Like The Killer. Without further ado, lets get down to the business at hand because this movie is difficult to pin down, in fact one might say it’s a….
Hard Target (1993) starring Jean Claude Van Damme, Lance Henrickson, Wilford Brimley, and Yancy Butler. Directed by John Woo. 

When Natasha Binder’s father goes missing in the streets of New Orleans, she turns to local boy Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme) for help finding him. When his body is discovered in a burnt out building, Chance suspects there’s more to this story than there seems. As he begins to investigate, he discovers a gang offering their wealthy clientele a chance to hunt a man for the right price. The gangs leader (Henrickson) is not pleased with the nosy Cajun‘s inquiries into his business, and soon the next target becomes Chance. 

The Bugg Speaks

It’s all here. All the trademarks that John Woo fans loved in his Hong Kong films are on full display. So why does Hard Target get a bad rap? Easy enough to explain. Jean Claude Van Damme, you are to blame, but you know what, you shouldn’t be. In the wake of JCVD, I threw myself headlong into Van Damme’s oeuvre. I checked out some of his early films, like Bloodsport, that I hadn’t seen in years, a couple mid-career flicks, Sudden Impact being the best of those, and even a couple of his dreadful recent films (avoid The Order at all costs). While comparing his performance in Hard Target to most of those films, I found that his turn as Chance Boudreaux was one of his best. After all, while his accent is surely not that of a Cajun, it does seem somewhat believable. 

What really turns around Van Damme’s performance is how John Woo handles the hero’s of his films. Woo takes his actors and makes them flawed mythical heroes. From the moment Boudreaux is introduced, Woo starts building this image. Sporting a long trench coat (and a mullet nearly as long), Chance appears to save a girl from a gang of street thugs, and the Woo effect begins. The camera goes into slow motion. Chance sweeps his coat back like a gunfighter, but instead revealing a gun, he’s readying his leg. Then in typical John Woo fashion, all hell breaks loose. It is nowhere near the best action sequence of the film, but it is pretty dang good. What it does do is establish the Chance Boudreaux character as a cool, calm, and collected badass, the only kind John Woo knows. 

What’s a good guy without a baddie to match though, and Hard Target brings a couple of good ones. Lance Henrickson is a man who should need no introduction to cult and horror movie fans. If for some reason you don’t know who he is, then stop reading this and go rent Aliens, Pumpkinhead, and Near Dark. Now that that’s settled, let me just say that Henrickson chews up the scenery as only he can, and he makes his human hunting character one mean ass bastard by taking it over the top. As his right hand man, Arnold Vosloo, who would go on to play The Mummy, is the very picture of a John Woo baddie. It’s too bad that some of his performance was edited down, but more on that later. 

I also have to mention that Hard Target features a couple small roles that I really liked. First off, how can I not mention Wilford Brimley as Chance’s bayou dwelling uncle. Talk about your accents, Brimley’s is way over the top, but the oatmeal spokesman is gloriously entertaining. I especially loved seeing him let loose with some action as he skewers a couple of baddies with a bow and arrow. Then there’s Sven Ole-Thorson, one of my favorite people to see in any film, and he brings some life to a very tiny part. In additon there’s another stellar character performance from Elliott Keener as a smut peddler. The only acting in the film that felt disposable was Yancy Butler as the damsel in distress. It was a one note character being played with a half note performance, but in fairness, I’ve never felt that Woo brought many good female roles to his movies. 

As I mentioned before, all of John Woo’s trademarks are on full display. You get your slow motion action sequences, you get guns being thrown around, you get birds flying around in action scenes, and motorcycles and sunglasses litter the film. The only thing missing is Woo’s traditional Mexican standoff, but I wonder if this was intentionally left out. There is a scene where Vosloo’s character cuts off an ear, and Woo placed this bit into the film as a nod to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Famously the standoff in Tarantino’s film had been inspired by similar scenes in Woo’s flicks. It’s really cool to see this back and forth between two of my favorite directors. 

Hard Target does not feature the slick perfection in the action scenes that Woo was known for with his Hong Kong epics, and I blame this partially on him getting used to the American studio system. However, this is the last American film of his that I enjoy so don’t expect to see Face/Off, Broken Arrow, or Paycheck to be featured this month. Woo did lose some of his magic when he came to the US, but Hard Target still retains enough of his original style to make it a worthwhile entry into the director’s catalog. 

At it’s core, Hard Target is nothing more than a retelling of The Most Dangerous Game, but Woo’s style and Van Damme’s physicality overcome the overdone premise. If you haven’t seen Hard Target because you were wary of Jean-Claude or suspect of John Woo’s recent films, then I encourage you to give it a chance. It’s an enjoyable action film that features some great set pieces, and some really nice footage of the New Orleans streets. Make sure you check out I Got the Ways and Means today for pictures of the location where the films first action sequence takes place, and I’ll see you folks back here next week as I go back in time with John Woo and revisit some of his greatest films. 

Bugg Rating

As a little bonus today I found the clip of the first action sequence for you to enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJune 5, 2009 at 4:00 PM

    I`ve already seen both "red cliff" films on 2 superb quality pirate DVD`s and they are great movies. By the way, yancy butler was a hot chick back in `93.


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