Director: John Woo
Writer: Chuck Pfarrer
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Arnold Vosloo, Yancy Butler, Kasi Lemmons, Chuck Pfarrer, Wilford Brimley, Robert Apisa, Eliott Keener
Running Time: 97 min.
Considering how much time has passed since its theatrical run and the fact that John Woo has gone on to become a Hollywood superstar, it’s easy to forget that “Hard Target” was a contentious film upon its release. Several factors were working against “Hard Target” during filming: you had uneasy producers at Universal Pictures wondering if Woo would be able to make a big-budget American flick with only a limited command of the English language (at the time). You had Van Damme back in the days when his ego was bigger than his muscles – just watch his old Arsenio Hall interviews if you don’t believe me – wanting to ensure that the movie glorified his image. And then you had poor John Woo, just trying to make a good debut film in Hollywood after passing on literally dozens of mediocre scripts. It’s a testament to Woo’s innate ability as a filmmaker that “Hard Target” turned out to be such a great action movie despite so many elements working against it.
Universal Pictures was smart in one regard: they handpicked Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”) to shepherd Woo’s arrival into Hollywood. Raimi received an executive producer credit and was on set during filming to help Woo as needed. Universal was expecting Raimi to step in as director if there were any problems but fortunately Raimi had a great deal of respect and love for Woo’s Hong Kong work; by all accounts, Sam never had to get behind the camera. Viewers may notice that Yancy Butler’s car in the film has Michigan plates, a reference to Raimi’s home state.
The editing process on “Hard Target” was a nightmare. The MPAA kept giving John Woo grief for the onscreen violence yet never told him what scenes in particular he needed to edit. Ultimately, Woo was forced to make 20 cuts in order to secure a “R” rating for the film. To make matters worst, Van Damme and his chosen editor locked themselves in the editing bay to make their own cut of the film. The actor wanted to make sure his fans got what he assumed they wanted: his dashing good looks and rippling biceps front and center. Van Damme’s new edit gave his character more screentime even at the expense of other characters and subplots.
There are those who claim that in John Woo’s original vision of “Hard Target” Lance Henriksen’s villain was the main character, with his role and backstory fleshed out. While that would have certainly been an interesting film, fans are probably most disappointed by Woo having to tone down his signature violence. There do exist Region 2 DVDs of “Hard Target” from countries like Russia, Japan, and Australia that have 3 minutes of footage restored. 3 minutes might not sound like a lot but when you figure a John Woo movie can kill dozens of people in seconds, 3 minutes adds up. If you get the chance to see it, the uncensored violence is spectacular – with Van Damme emptying 30 bullets (no exaggeration) into some enemies before jump-kicking his workboots across their face – but, to be fair, the film works just fine in its “R”-rated form.
The screenplay for “Hard Target” by Chuck Pfarrer (who also helped write Sam Raimi’s underrated superhero film “Darkman) takes liberal inspiration from the classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” which you may have read in high school. Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, an ex-marine living in New Orleans who’s down on his luck and in need of some easy money. He meets up with Yancy Butler’s out-of-towner and she offers him a decent chunk of cash to help track down her missing father, who had become homeless. As it turns out, her pop was the victim of an illegal operation run by Lance Henriksen, which allows the privileged and wealthy to hunt vagrants in the streets for a large sum. Van Damme isn’t going to stand for that and soon the hunter – Lance’s deliciously over the top baddie – becomes the hunted.
The script for “Hard Target” has a decent amount of set-up. A good hour goes by without much action, other than a brief but beautifully-choreographed fight between Van Damme and some thugs outside a diner. The dialogue isn’t very good but what the screenplay does well is build up its villains as truly loathsome and evil human beings so that when the finale comes you can’t wait to see Van Damme kick their asses. Lance Henriksen and his right hand man, “The Mummy” actor Arnold Vosloo, seem to delight in playing sophisticated bad guys – you gotta love the scene devoted to Lance sitting at the piano before he closes his next “business” deal.
Van Damme’s never been good at delivering one-liners. His accent always seems to make him put the emphasis on the wrong words. In “Hard Target” he tells some purse snatchers, “Why don’t you take your PIG-stick and your BOYfriend, and find a bus to catch.” However, Van Damme is an underrated actor when it comes to his expressive face. Notice the look he gives Yancy Butler when she finds her father’s belongings in an abandoned shopping cart. Van Damme knows how to display vulnerability and concern with a simple look on his face, something that made him a more memorable action star than many of his peers like Arnold or Stallone.
The final 30 minutes of “Hard Target” is basically an extended chase sequence, featuring some amazing stunt work on a freeway overpass and the final shootout in a warehouse full of Mardi Gras floats. It’s during this climactic battle that Woo seems to be trying to top the warehouse sequence from “Hard Boiled.” If he doesn’t quite succeed, it’s probably because of Hollywood safety regulations rather than any lack of ambition. In 90’s Hong Kong, directors like Woo worked insane hours and stuntmen risked their life and limb for the perfect shot. In Hollywood, they have a little thing called “insurance policies” that prevent such dangerous filmmaking. And as Jackie Chan explains in his book “I Am Jackie Chan,” Hollywood will spend twenty days shooting dialogue and three days shooting action scenes; in Hong Kong, it’s the opposite.
Watch “Hard Target” enough times and John Woo’s subtle stylistic flourishes really stand out. I love the way Van Damme can’t turn around during the last act without a 4X4 truck full of bad guys careening around the corner, dudes leaning out the window with automatic weapons trained on him. Sure, Woo employs plenty of slow motion but it’s not often during instances of action; it’s in the seconds preceding or following the violence, or the little moments like when Van Damme blows the dust off his trusty old shotgun.
The production values are sky-high; I can’t really remember the last time Hollywood pumped money into a movie that featured SMG machine guns and motorcycle stunts instead of CGI. You’d probably have to go as far back as 2003 with “Bad Boys II.” And the action scenes in “Hard Target” still hold up; there are very few movies I can watch again and again and still have them thrill me like the first time, but the sight of Van Damme surfing on a motorcycle always makes me laugh so hard I cry. And as ridiculous as this scene is, I promise I’m not laughing at Van Damme – that stunt is incredibly bad-ass! Kudos to the stunt man who actually flipped himself over the hood of a 4X4.
The score from New Zealand-born composer Graeme Revell (“Dead Calm,” “The Crow“) is actually quite good and fits the action at every turn. Though I gotta say, there’s this bluesy gutiar riff that plays during Van Damme’s fight outside the diner – this riff, titled “Streetfighting” on the soundtrack, is so damn cool I wish it would have been repeated throughout the film as Chance’s ‘motif.’ Regardless, “Hard Target” continues Van Damme’s trend of working with great musicians (Mark Isham on “Nowhere to Run,” Randy Edelman on “The Quest”) and features some wonderful slide guitar work not unlike the soundtracks of composer Ry Cooder.
One of Van Damme’s lasting legacies as an actor is how he brought so many Hong Kong directors to Hollywood – Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam. Interestingly, Woo is the only one of those celebrated filmmakers who didn’t work with Van Damme again. I contend that John Woo and Van Damme were a great match for each other. Their collaboration just occurred too soon in Van Damme’s career. It wasn’t until “Maximum Risk” in 1996 that Van Damme seemed to humble himself and focus on honing his acting skills. With “Hard Target,” one gets that sense that JCVD was a little too concerned with making a glamor piece to get out of the way and let John Woo do his thing.
Funnily enough, John Woo originally wanted Kurt Russell in the main role. Can you imagine that? I’m picturing an alternate reality where Kurt Russell was the star of “Hard Target,” sort of like that scene in “Last Action Hero” where Arnold walks into Blockbuster Video and there’s a poster for “Terminator 2” with Sylvester Stallone on it. I’m sure Kurt Russell would have brought more depth to the role, but would he have brought the same physical flair and machismo as Van Damme? Maybe, maybe not.
In addition to the 100 minute cut on some foreign DVDs I mentioned, there is a 116 minute work print copy of John Woo’s cut floating around out there in the wild. This cut was never finalized so if you manage to find it, the footage will most likely look rough; there won’t be any soundtrack; and the time code will be burned into the bottom left of the picture. For hardcore Woo fans, it’s probably worth a watch at some point since subplots are developed more and all the violence is intact. This cut does deliver more on Lance Henriksen’s backstory and philosophy about hunting humans, and Jean Claude and Yancy Butler actually have a love scene. What’s potentially crucial about the deleted love scene is that JC explains more of his past and his relationship to his Uncle before he and Yancy ‘get it on.’ This would have helped the film as a whole as “Hard Target” admittedly features one of the most superficial characters of Van Damme’s entire career. I mean, the guy is basically an out-of-work seaman (yeah, yeah, ha ha funny) who decides to take down Lance Henriksen’s operation. That’s it. But I suppose with John Woo making Van Damme look like a superhero onscreen, character depth is a overrated.
I’d love to see an uncut blu-ray release of “Hard Target” in the future – if not the 116 minute cut mastered in high definition, then at least the 100 minute one found on many Region 2 DVDs. Sadly, this seems highly unlikely. It’s hard enough to get Universal to release their prestigious catalog titles like the Hitchcock movies on blu-ray, let alone a Jean Claude Van Damme picture. In the meantime, hardcore fans will have to content themselves with foreign DVDs or perhaps their worn-out VHS copies. Van Damme and John Woo have both had interesting career paths since their sole collaborative effort in 1993. You may feel that they’ve both done several films that were better (“Face Off,” perhaps?) or worse (“Paycheck“) than “Hard Target” in the intervening years, but there’s no denying that “Hard Target” features some of the most stunning action photography to ever come out of a Hollywood. And it wouldn’t have been possible without Van Damme’s physical prowess or Woo’s unique vision.
NOTE: Here’s a link to the All Outta Bubblegum blog, famous for keeping track of how many bad guys the hero kills in action films. They have a video of the uncut version of “Hard Target,” featuring some work print footage, that gives you an idea of just how violent John Woo’s un-compromised vision is: http://www.allouttabubblegum.com/main/?p=350
HKFanatic’s Rating: 9/10