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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Odysseus: Voyage to the Underworld (2008)

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For those of us of a certain age and nationality – British, mid 30s to early 50s – there’s a beloved kids show called “Jackanory”, which was basically a celeb sat in a comfy armchair reading a story, often accompanied with brief animations or re-enactments. When comedian / actor Tony Robinson took over in the mid 80s, he got rid of the armchair and all the nonsense, adapting classic stories himself and filming them on location. Perhaps the most famous of all his shows was “The Odyssey”, as he roamed over ruins on Mediterranean islands, telling enthralled kids one of the greatest stories ever.

 

Fun fact – scientists have, using an eclipse in the story that happened in real life, dated the return of Odysseus to Ithaca at 16th April 1178 BCE, which I’m only telling you because I love that they bothered to do it.

 

So, since childhood, the Odyssey has been one of my favourite stories, and I’ve enjoyed several adaptations of it (“Ulysses 31”, an animated series, remains one of my favourites). When I found out that the SyFy Channel had done an adaptation of it, I was super-pleased, even knowing how long the odds were of it being any good. Because it’s such a long story (there’s the whole thing with the “suitors” in Ithaca, and Odysseus’ son Telemachus trying to raise a crew for a ship to go searching, and the many many tall tales of his adventures Odysseus tells…it’s got a lot of ground to cover) I guessed it would just be a small section of the epic, and I was right, but enough of me pretending I’m clever! Let’s get on with the review!

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Much like the “Maniac Cop” sequels and “Earth’s Final Hours”, we’ve got an opportunity to see a typecast bad guy as the hero – this time, Arnold Vosloo (“The Mummy”) is Odysseus and he clearly relishes the chance. The story is set right at the end of “The Odyssey”, substituting his 7-year solo imprisonment on the island of Ogygia for his crew being shipwrecked on the Isle of Mists, just past where they meet the Sirens. I wonder if the boat effect was done last after they’d run out of money, because the movie was too short, but it’s absolutely shockingly bad – getting the night effect is achieved by a blanket with tiny holes in it (for real) and you never see the cast and water in the same shot.

 

Anyway, his crew have to fight seemingly invincible flying creatures, sort of like goblins with wings, but are rescued by one of the Sirens, who seems to be a good person, just wanting their help to get off the island. So, while Odysseus and his crew have their doubts, they plan an escape, and tell stories of their adventures to Homer, the young crew member who’s taken it on himself to record their adventures. Odysseus has a few dream-conversations with Athena, one of the friendly gods, and realises all is not as it seems, too.

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One part of the movie which seems like a cheap cop-out but isn’t, is the second-hand relating of stories (the Cyclops, the stones raining down on them, and so on). In the original story, these are flashbacks too, so good on the scriptwriter for figuring out a way to both save money and be true to the source. It would have been nice to have a bit more of their journey and a bit less wandering about the island, but beggars (people who watch the SyFy Channel) can’t be choosers.

 

The acting is very strong – as well as Vosloo, there’s Steve Bacic as Eurylochus and JR Bourne as Perimedes, one of whom is more cerebral, the other more physical. Randal Edwards as Homer is fine, as is Michael Antonakos as Christos (the only remotely Greek person in this movie). Stefanie von Pfetten as Persephone is really good too, keeping on the right side of being convincing while still leaving room for doubt.

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I don’t think there’s tons of point in driving holes through the historical logic of a movie based on a legend – ultimately, all it is is a story, and can be used however. But…Homer wasn’t part of Odysseus’ crew, and there’s quite a bit of doubt both about if he existed at all, and if he did, when he was alive. The smart money seems to be on him being a name for a movement of performance poets who would tell the tale in public – which also makes me wonder why the movie has the framing device of old Homer writing the story (because he never wrote it down, as far as we can tell). Given Homer has been with the crew for a couple of years by this point, they’d have probably told him all their stories already too.

 

It’s fun, if incredibly slight – not a lot really happens for way too much of the movie. While I’m glad they left some stuff out (like how he and his son have 12 maids put to death for helping out Penelope’s suitors, and how Odysseus kills all the suitors too, leaving the city he’s supposed to be in charge of with very few living adult men, bearing in mind he’s the only person to make it back from the Trojan War alive), they could have done with having a bit more left in. Or, now I come to think about it, in a movie called “Odysseus: Voyage To The Underworld”, maybe have him go to the underworld? Okay, it’s listed on IMDB as “Odysseus: Island Of Mists”, even if that’s not the name I got it under.

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Not bad, certainly, as it would be difficult to completely mess up this story, but not quite good enough.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Endangered Species (2003)

Don't know who this bloke is, but he's not in this movie

Don’t know who this bloke is, but he’s not in this movie

John Rhys-Davies is a first-ballot ISCFC Hall of Famer, without a doubt. As well as entertaining us for all the good seasons of “Sliders”, he’s done sterling work in a number of Asylum movies, something called “Lord of the Rings” (too big-budget for us) and , if you look at his IMDB credits, what looks like every sci-fi or horror movie of the last twenty years. He’s clearly a guy who loves working, and while that brings honourable failures and enormous successes, sometimes it leaves us with “what the hell were you going for?” choices, like “Endangered Species”. But more on him later.

One thing you could not accuse this movie of is originality. Take a smidgeon of “Predator 2”, a hefty bit of “The Hidden”, and a storyline which has occurred in pretty much every sci-fi TV series ever, and you’ve got this. An alien is on earth, hunting and skinning us; because we’re a protected nature reserve, in intergalactic terms, a “park ranger” is sent down to stop the poaching. The “ranger” is Arnold Vosloo, star of almost as many genre things as Rhys-Davies, and of course the cops think he’s the bad guy at first, but eventually it all gets sorted and they help each other track down the effectively indestructible alien hunter. That cop? Eric Roberts, who perhaps lost the same bet the rest of the cast of this did, which led to him agreeing to be in it. Still, he gets a nice sex scene or two, and his wife is very attractive, so perhaps that was it. Do actors even think that way? “Well, I’m not getting paid very much, but I do get to see that person naked”.

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A lot of this film’s really odd feel comes from its location. It was filmed in Lithuania and zero attempt is made to make it look anything like the USA. The lack of road signs, actual signs, advertising billboards or anything like that makes it feel like a really old computer game, where all they could manage was vague shapes of buildings and roads. Most of the murders take place in health spas and gyms, and they’re always on ugly streets with bad lighting – unlike just about every gym ever, but never mind.

John Rhys-Davies is the comic relief in this, which is a weird bit of casting. He runs after bad guys, swearing the entire time, and partakes in banter with his fellow cops, perhaps the worst most stilted banter in movie history. He does get a great line in, though, while toying with an alien gun – “I may not be from the University of scientific smartarses”, delivered with way more gravitas than it deserves. He’s great, as always, but it’s properly bizarre casting.

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Everything feels off. Not just the casting (for example, the cop’s tech guy is Al Sapienza, who only really plays villains), not just the locations, not just the banter, but everything. Too many boobs on display, cop cars made of petrol and dynamite, that incredibly annoying siren in the seemingly never-ending car chase in the last two-thirds of the movie, the family subplot which might as well just be a black screen with the word “FILLER” on it, and the boring inevitability of it all.

One last thing – the invincible alien trope. Both Vosloo and the hunter are completely indestructible, and not just because of the leather jackets they both wear. The hunter takes a couple of shots to the skull and laughs it off. Now, the comparison is made that they are to us, as we are to apes. If an ape threw a rock at my head, it would hurt like hell, but they can take an automatic rifle to the dome and not lose a step? Boo, I say to you. I hate the invincible alien trope.

Anyway, if you’re a mad Eric Roberts or JRD completist, pop this on, by all means. But otherwise just watch “The Hidden”, as it’s much better.

Rating: thumbs down