Hard Target (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Take a deep breath and prepare to suspend your disbelief, because in bringing us this summer's first (and probably only) pure action film, Jean-Claude Van Damme and John Woo have given new meaning to the word "preposterous".

Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme) is a down-on-his-luck ex-merchant marine who got blacklisted after dumping a drug-smuggling captain overboard. Now, he's forced to eke out a living doing whatever odd jobs he can find on the docks and streets of New Orleans. One day, he spies a lady in distress (Yancy Butler), and, using his rather impressive kick-boxing techniques, rescues her from a gang of would-be muggers (and rapists?). In return, she offers him a job: help her find her father, a homeless vet who has disappeared. What Natasha and Chance's search turns up, however, turns out to be a dark and deadly secret that makes them the prey in a vicious cat-and-mouse game run by the evil and ruthless Fouchon (Lance Henriksen).

Hard Target is, in essence, an example of the victory of style over substance. When it comes to the "typical" criteria by which a film is judged, this movie fails badly. Its characters are poorly-developed, the plot is the pinnacle of absurdity, and the acting, at best, is well over-the-top. Nevertheless, on the most basic, visceral level, the film succeeds.

Those who went to as Last Action Hero and left disappointed because they expected a straight action film, will likely accord redemption to the summer of '93 because of Hard Target. Albeit with a thinner plot, this is the kind of no-holds-barred chase, fight, and shoot-out picture that has become a Schwarzenegger staple. Van Damme has an accent, the charisma, the physique, and the lack of acting skills. Really, unless you're paying the check, it's hard to tell the difference.

At the helm of Hard Target is John Woo, who is internationally-recognized for not pulling punches when it comes to violence (the two films he is best known for are The Killer and Hard Boiled). Indeed, he doesn't merely direct this movie, he choreographs it, turning simple fight sequences into ballets of bloodshed. It's compelling, albeit a little disconcerting, to see violence so lovingly and carefully photographed. Hard Target isn't some hack job -- a lot of effort went into crafting the picture. Snipped and put back together to avoid an NC-17, the film still offers a lot of mayhem and murder. It would have been interesting to see the cut that represented Woo's initial vision.

There is perhaps a little too much slow-motion photography, and the score, while capturing the flavor of Louisiana, often becomes intrusive. Early in the film, it seems that every time we're treated to a shot of Van Damme, he's walking towards us in slow-motion with his overcoat flapping in the breeze while an unnecessary blast of music blares from the theater speakers.

The first half of the film occasionally slows up for some silly exposition, but by the mid-point, the hunt is underway, and it's all action from there. If, by five minutes into the movie, you haven't put your brain into park, this is going to seem like an utterly ridiculous effort. Those who are willing to get into the spirit are in for a roller-coaster ride directed by a master and acted by someone who knows how to kick higher than most people can jump.

I'm not going to say much about the plot, because it's far too contrived to be worth mentioning. Suffice it to say that if the success of Hard Target depended on it, the movie would be sunk. Even for the action-oriented film-goer, there are a few moments too hard to swallow (where's the "S" on Van Damme's chest?). If nothing else, they're good for comic relief which, fortunately seems to be Woo's intent.

Lance Henriksen enjoys himself immensely. He's fun to watch, but he goes so far over-the-top that I'm not sure it would be justified to call what he does a "performance". Regardless, he provides an excellent and much-needed counterpoint to Van Damme's ho-hum delivery. The hero, after all, is good with his kicks and punches, but not his lines. Yancy Butler does a poor job, even considering the company she keeps. Someone who can make Van Damme look like a drama school graduate really needs to take some acting lessons (although, admittedly, there's a scene with a snake where she's fantastic). And couldn't they have gotten someone a little more lively than Wilford Brimley for Chance's lunatic uncle?

Anyway, you pretty much get the idea. Without the elegant technique of John Woo, Hard Target could have been a real dud. It is not a good alternative to more intelligent thrillers such as In the Line of Fire and as The Fugitive, but that's not the market it's aimed at. However, those who enter a darkened theater showing this film with a reasonable idea of what they're getting themselves into, are likely to emerge satisfied.

Hard Target (United States, 1993)

Director: John Woo
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, Arnold Vosloo
Screenplay: Chuck Pfarrer
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter
Music: Graeme Revell and Kodo
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1993-08-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1