Hard Target (1993)

This is perhaps a bit too big and polished for us to review here at the ISCFC – directed by John Woo before he became a Chinese government propagandist, hefty budget, people you’ve heard of in starring roles – but they made a “sequel” last year starring Scott Adkins, and we love Scott Adkins, so we decided to watch this again for fun. If you’re a reader of this site, I’d be genuinely surprised if you’d not already seen it, so let’s take a wander through a real B-movie classic.

The presence of the cajun subculture in the USA is a huge boon to Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s played one in multiple movies so he doesn’t have to hide his accent. He’s played characters like “Luc Devereaux” (the Universal Soldier series), “Frenchy”, “Philip Sauvage”, “Kyle LeBlanc” and here he’s “Chance Boudreaux”, the former soldier and now semi-drifter who’s brought into the orbit of Natasha “Nat” Binder (Yancy Butler, whose struggles with alcoholism aged her rather significantly so looks weirdly young here) pretty much by accident.

Nat is in New Orleans looking for her father, who she lost touch with many years ago. He was a former soldier who found life after the service to be difficult and slipped into a subculture of homelessness and infrequent labour; I’d say the movie had something interesting to say about how countries treat their soldiers but it’s all over the place politically, being vehemently anti-union too (the cop who helps them out, eventually, is the only scab as the rest of the police department is on strike).

We saw, though, from the first scene, that her father was killed by a group of scumbag “hunters”, led by Lance Henriksen with support from Arnold Vosloo (two actors with many, many ISCFC credits between them). Yes, it’s “The Most Dangerous Game” once again, as reviewed by us in “Death Chase”, “The Condemned” and “The Condemned 2”, “The Eliminator”, “Turkey Shoot”, “Deadly Run”, “Deadly Prey”, “Immortal Combat”, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten (as well as literally hundreds of movies we’ve not got round to covering yet), where wealthy people with an inexplicable desire to literally murder the underclass they’ve already successfully exploited pay a group of villains to help them hunt a person.

The cold open is one of these scenes, and it immediately poses a question. How excited would you be if your heavily armed, rested, well-trained group shot a completely defenceless, exhausted man? Because they all seem way too pleased at what they’ve done. Perhaps actual hunters are like that when they shoot a deer or whatever. “Look at me! I can kill things!”

But this is John Woo, who knows how to make an exciting action movie without too much rubbish in it, so it’s packed with incident. One of the friendly homeless former servicemen is picked as the next victim of the hunt, the villains discuss how they wait for a place to have problems (like a police strike, or a war) to move in and ply their trade undisturbed by the authorities, and Chance, Kat and the cop work their way through the underbelly of New Orleans to find what happened to Kat’s dad.

You know, of course, it’s going to be JCVD as the subject of the hunt at some point, but they don’t give it to us immediately because they have a plot and actors who can act and a budget and all the other things that ISCFC movies are almost always lacking. You want to see him kick a bunch of ass, and he does. There’s a combination of JCVD’s brilliant fight scenes of the time and Woo’s gun-battle expertise (Woo didn’t usually have a lot of hand-to-hand in his classic movies, if memory serves), and there’s rarely a dull moment.

Ted “brother of Sam” Raimi pops up in a brief cameo as a douchebag, and I was all “huh?” Then I checked the credits and Sam Raimi is one of the producers, along with Robert Tapert (the two of them have produced pretty much all Sam’s movies). How the hell did that happen?

Okay, I know how it happened, but it’s still a bit of a “huh?” answer. Due to John Woo’s limited command of English, Raimi was hired to oversee the production and take over direction if Woo was unable to direct the English crew. Makes sense until you think, why Sam Raimi? A possible answer is that he and Van Damme were thinking of working on another movie together a few years previously, and had perhaps become friends; given Van Damme’s cosmic-sized ego, maybe they wanted a friend on set in case he tried to take things over? I’d like to see a Raimi commentary on “Hard Target”, definitely.

I’ve not even mentioned Wilford Brimley and his super-unconvincing cajun accent; the scene where JCVD punches out a snake; or even the plot of the second half of the movie. Van Damme gets upset over the killing of his old friend Roper, the saintly homeless soldier who supplies the main cast with most of their information, and goes after Henriksen; he then offers some former clients the chance to hunt the ultimate prey for $750,000. Although after he shoots the first hunter for not being violent enough, if I was one of the other three guys, I’d have packed my guns up and gone home. Perhaps why I’m not a psychopath, maybe?

It’s a glorious movie, I reckon. All Woo’s trademarks are there – the doves, the slow motion, the bullet ballet – but it’s filtered through our favourite lunatic Belgian action hero. Apparently, Woo’s original cut was almost two hours long and focused much more on Henriksen (he and Arnold Vosloo, as his assistant, are fantastic together and I wish they’d done a lot more as a team) so JCVD and his editor locked themselves in a room for two days and cut it to the length we see now. I would love to see that version!

Every day where I don’t find out that Van Damme was a massive sex-pest in his prime is a good day; so I can still enjoy his classic movies, when studios gave him a budget, great co-stars and high-end directors (see also: Timecop, which we’ll cover soon). A true blending of Woo’s sensibilities with his star’s abilities, one of the great action movies of the era.

Rating: thumbs up

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