Hard Target (1993): Breakdown by Kain424
A former merchant marine helps a woman find her long-lost father, uncovering a group of rich, well-armed mercenaries who hunt people for sport.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
THE GOOD GUYS:
Jean-Claude Van Damme as Chance Boudreaux
Before Hard Target, I would suggest we only had Van Damme the performer. He had his flips, his kicks, and his physique. Now, we have Van Damme the persona. He is clever, cagey, and charming.
Yancy Butler as Natasha ‘Nat’ Binder
A pre-Witchblade Butler does what she can, but this is largely a damsel-in-distress role. Yancy is all eyes and tears.
THE BAD GUYS:
Lance Henriksen as Emil Fouchon
Henriksen is on fire here… literally, at one point. He pushes the character hard, stealing several scenes and nearly the whole movie. He never quite goes full ham, but remains just on the edge, an evil, evil man, but with a lot of pride and dignity.
Arnold Vosloo as Pik van Cleef
The South African actor wouldn’t get another meaty role like this until 1999’s The Mummy. Again, we get an actor who gets it. He plays the role as a clean, stoic version of Chance gone wrong. Dark, short hair and sadistic, but of course, “a professional.”
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
Well, this is a John Woo film. And as such, women tend to typically spend the duration in the back seat. So even though Yancy Butler’s character of Nat is the driving force of the plot, she spends the film being either a helpless damsel or hiding from danger. The one time in which she draws a weapon and obliterates a foe, she is immediately disarmed by an ally and chastised for her actions. Kasi Lemmons’ character is similarly treated. After being one of the stronger female characters of the era for a third of the movie’s running time, she is dispatched and left dead on the side of the road, with only Nat to mourn her.
But hey, you gotta look at the silver lining. In a movie set in New Orleans, with a main character sporting a mullet and a trenchoat, villainous mercenary characters with vague East European connections, and rich people hunting the poor for sport, you have to hand it to the filmmakers for not including a single scene set in a strip club. Sexism? Yes. Exploitation? Not so much.
MURDER BY NUMBERS: 
45 bodies drop over the course of the original uncut version, of which Van Damme racks up an impressive 31. WATCH HERE
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
One thing I’ve always loved about Hong Kong Action movies is their penchant for never thinking anything is impossible. They’ll have characters ride on top of speeding cars, a gun in each hand, firing at their targets, while driving said cars with their sneakered feet. John Woo rose to fame during this brilliantly wacky place and time. And as such, when he came to the United States, he still had those sensibilities in place when he filmed this amazing sequence:
That could have been the ending of the movie for me. I mean, what could possibly top that? Well, how about something a bit more minimal, but equally absurd:
Checkmate, Chuck Norris.
“Hunting season… is over.”
While many fans of Van Damme’s 90s output would frequently cite Hard Target as among the best (if not THE best) of these films, it’s easy to forget that the studios did not think it went over that well. Released at the end of 1993’s summer, just after Andrew Davis’s Harrison Ford flick The Fugitive began its triumphant run across six weeks of unencumbered number one spotting, Universal immediately set about pointing fingers. People in Woo’s camp blamed the studio for taking the film from the director’s hands and re-editing it. Nevermind the fact this was the first film Stateside of an accomplished Action director from Hong Kong. Never mind that scoring the number two spot against not only Harrison Ford, an established star, by two foreigners should be considered a victory in itself. Woo’s upward trajectory in the Hollywood system started here, and if you forget about the nay saying, contradictory reports of the on-set turmoils, and even the sad eventual butchering of the film to homogenize it for American audiences, you might just see the forgotten masterpiece that is Hard Target.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. Hard Target is not anything special in terms of story, music, or screenplay. That kind of system, when used for measuring the quality of a genre known for disregarding “acting” in place of an emphasized focus on acts of physical or forceful prowess, is largely futile here. This is a unique blending of styles, two worlds colliding, to make one of the greatest Action star vehicles of all time. On the one hand, you have Jean-Claude Van Damme. He had been forcing his way into the Hollywood system for years. His breakout film, Bloodsport, was fresh, different, and well-received by audiences. He would return again and again to martial arts, as that was his specialty. First in Kickboxer, and once more in Lionheart. But Van Damme knew he would eventually have to show some versatility to differentiate himself from the likes of his competition (Steven Seagal and B-movie contemporaries like Jeff Speakman, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, etc.). As Hollywood had been doing for the past decade or so before him, Van Damme looked to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong cinema was in its prime, pumping out insane Action classics, sometimes several every year. Hollywood studios would never catch up, as Hong Kong films were generally made fast, cheap, and with far fewer regulations. Packed full of inventive shootouts, mesmerizing fights, and amazing stunts, these films would time and again defeat Hollywood productions at the box office in Hong Kong, a rarity at the time. And the king of these films was John Woo, whose crime melodramas upped the ante with each release, starting in 1986 with A Better Tomorrow. Van Damme was attempting to ape Woo’s style as early as 1991’s Double Impact, which saw superficial similarities in its double-fisted gunplay and Van Damme’s own penchant for using slow motion to show off his high-kicking acrobatics.
For his part, Woo was already looking to leave Hong Kong. Both for artistic reasons and political. The Chinese government was nearing its 1997 re-acquirement of Hong Kong, which saw a mass exodus of fearful artistics and intellectuals. The massacre of students on June 4th at Tiananmen Square only reinforced the notion that the government was gearing up to clamp down hard on the previously free range the non-mainlanders had in Hong Kong. Jean-Claude Van Damme and his Hollywood backers were a logical step, and after picking a script from former Navy SEAL and Navy SEALs author Chuck Pfarrer, work quickly began on John Woo’s Hollywood debut.
Pfarrer’s script owes much of itself to The Most Dangerous Game, pitting our protagonists against people who practice human hunting. After Woo got involved, the bodycount and Action content seen in the final form were added. That’s just how Woo rolls. And speaking of rolling, the crew layed over ten miles of dolly track for the ending alone, with cameras going back and forth, parallel and crossing in front of one another. Woo’s penchant for getting most shots in one or two takes meant multiple cameras running all the time. The result is a film unlike any other, with martial arts mayhem bouncing frenetically off of the balletic gunplay in ample amounts.
For me, Hard Target represents the realization of what could be considered the perfect Action movie. We have car chases, gunfights, martial arts battles, and truly gigantic explosions. We get our drama, our comedy, but we also get our one-man army with an ending implying a very busy undertaker in the near future. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the studio did take possession of the film and they did lock Woo from the editing room. In Ric Meyers’s book Films Of Fury, the author asserts Jean-Claude Van Damme wanted more close-ups and was responsible for Woo being locked from editing. Having viewed both versions, I can say with certainty this is not the case. If anything, the original Woo version contains much more Van Damme than the American theatrical cut. What actually seems to be the case is that Universal feared American audiences would not respond well to the excess of John Woo, which is entirely too bad. This is an exploitation film, pure and simple, but one whose exaggerated Action scenes place it far and above the usual fare of the time. It’s avant garde Action at its finest. The European cut of the film fares better, keeping in some of the more insane moments (Van Dame jousting a car while on a motorcycle) and Van Damme’s more incredible acrobatics, but it’s the uncut workprint where the true film still shines.
In speaking of John Woo’s excess, it is impossible not to mention the violent eccentricities of the director. While a man of peace himself, his films are some of the most violent movies ever made, with bodycounts frequently tipping in around the triple digits. Outside of something like Commando, American audiences rarely see such imagery. And even then, there is a marked difference between Arnold Schwarzenegger killing a hundred people and Chow Yun-Fat shooting a man a hundred times. The MPAA also have their hands in this pie, and alterations were bound to be made in order to get the R-rating the studios needed for a wide release. For an example, here is Sven Ole-Thorsen’s death scene from the movie with the excised material re-inserted:
Hard Target is, perhaps most importantly, and despite the objections of a few, still very much a John Woo film. Obviously, you have your doves, slow motion, and double gun trademarks, but you can also see a clear progression ideas. The duality between Van Damme’s Chance and Vosloo’s Pik is anything but subtle. Woo even uses the same shoot-at-one-another-through-the-glass trick he did with Tony Leung and Philip Kwok in Hard Boiled.
But this is Woo on overdrive because this is Woo also very eager to please. He wants to prove himself to a new audience and thus pulls out all the stops. There is no restraint here when Van Damme punches a snake or Lance Henriksen’s Contender blasts apart a road barrier. The pyrotechnics in the final get bigger and bigger until the villain literally explodes. Henchman burst forth from the fires of chaos, shooting rounds and rounds of ammunition, Jean-Claude flips over a burning Mardi Gras carcass and fires his shotgun before he hits the ground, blasting his opponent twenty feet away.
One of the complaints I’ve seen leveled at Hard Target is the lack of the usual John Woo male brotherhood aspect found as far back as Woo’s first feature, The Young Dragons, and on through The Hand Of Death and A Better Tomorrow. But I assure you, it’s there. It’s just been moved from our heroes to our antagonists. But rather than two opposing sides finding a common bonding ground between them, we have here John Woo exploring two men on the same side, their friendship beginning to buckle because of the pride of one.
Woo might have been a bit out of his element coming to Hollywood, but I think he brought enough of what makes his films his to stand out. He makes good use of the New Orleans skyline as a substitute for Hong Kong’s, and of course he made Van Damme look like a true star.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Hunting people is bad.
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
[X] Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
[X] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
[X] Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[ ] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket or A Towel
[X] Factory/Warehouse/Castle (abandoned motel)
[X] Giant Explosion(s)
[ ] Heavy Artillery
[X] Improvised Weapon(s)
[X] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
[X] Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
[X] Manly Embrace(s)
[X] Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting (Sven Ole-Thorsen!)
[X] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[X] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s) (police on strike)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[X] Shoot Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
[X] Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[ ] Stupid Authoritative Figure(s)
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
[ ] Tis The Season
[X] Torture Sequence(s)
[ ] Unnecessary Sequel
[X] Vehicle Chase(s)
[X] Vigilante Justice
[TOTAL: 20 outta 25]
Wilford Brimley… the Action star!?