Hard Target: John Woo’s American Debut, Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

John Woo, cult director of the new Honk Kong Cinema, makes his eagerly-awaited American debut with Hard Target, a briskly vigorous, occasionally brilliant, actioner starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

However, hampered by a B-script with flat, standard characters, and subjected to repeated editing of the violent sequences to get an R rating, the film doesn’t bear Woo’s auteurist signature and unique vision as displayed in his chef d’oeuvre, The Killer, or last year’s smash, Hard-Boiled.

Topliner Van Damme and director’s reputation should give pic a good start, though up against other popular actioners (The Fugitive) which are more emotionally satisfying, Hard Target should achieve solid, but not spectacular, box-office.

Chuck Pfarrer, who also co-produced and plays a small part in the film, fashions his script as a variation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” a classic story that has received numerous film versions, such as the l932 Joel McCrea vehicle, Robert Wise’s l946 A Game of Death, and Roy Boulting’s l956 Run for the Sun.

Switching the original locale from the remote island to urban New Orleans, the tale centers on a sadistic band of hunters, headed by amoral chief Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his deputy Van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo), who prey on homeless veterans in a deadly “safari game.” The cool mercenaries usually make sure that their prey be a challenge to the hunters, i.e. strong men, preferably with military experience, but without family bonds that would make them traceable.

Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, a down-on-his luck merchant sailor, who comes to the rescue of Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler), a young woman searching for her missing father, the latest victim. Like most American movie heroes, at first Van Damme is willing to help just for the sake of money–he needs $217 dollars to pay his union dues as a seaman in order to get work. Gradually, however, he becomes morally and emotionally committed to the cause.

At the center of the original story, and in some of the former versions, is the demented psychology of the millionaire who lures his human prey to an isolated site just for the sake of experiencing the exhilaration of trapping humans. In the new film, however, the murderous game is devised as a business operation, run for profit and assisted by a corrupt sheriff.

Unfortunately, Hard Target’s script is too schematic, populated with standard villains, the usual sadistic American thugs. By now, Lance Henriksen has played so many cold-blooded heavies that just his appearance suggests all there is to know about his deviant, nefarious venture. The tale’s social subtext, that only the rich can afford to become hunters, and that their victims are desperate homeless combat veterans, willing to bet their lives against a $10,000 prize, also gets lost.

Ultimately, Hard target is a compromised work: a stylistic hybrid of the American and Hong Kong action pics. But compared with American action directors, Woo’s genius is still in evidence. A master of intricate mise-en-scene, Woo is a virtuoso at staging and editing set pieces as seamless choreography–with precision, visual inventiveness, and humor.

Pic’s pacing, in fact, is so fast that Woo manages to cover Van Damme’s usual inexpressiveness as an actor. While his line delivery is still stiff, Woo helps his star to display his specialty–high-powered martial arts skills–with greater panache and stylization than in his previous films. Hard Target is far superior to Van Damme’s last two outings (the corny Nowhere to Run and the derivative Universal Soldier). And it may also be the first film that he doesn’t narcissistically bare his body.

What is inexplicable–and possibly the film’s worst aspect– is the casting of Yancy Butler as the ingenue: lacking screen presence, or charm for that matter, Butler gives an embarrassing performance. In contrast, character actor Wilford Brimley brings offbeat humor to his role as Van Damme’s salty Cajun uncle.

The disjointed storytelling, occasional chopped editing and uneven performances undermine what could have been a much better picture. But Hard Target still packs no small amount of punches and, by standards of American actioners, contains some strikingly impressive set pieces. Woo stages major action sequences in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. For the climax, which occupies pic’s last half an hour, he moves the action to a huge dark warehouse, packed with floats from Mardi Gras parades.

Woo shoots exploding trucks or fires with six or seven cameras at once–each camera functions as the equivalent of another set-up. Among the many thrilling stunts is a head-on encounter between Van Damme standing atop a motorcycle and a Jeep, with the star leaping through the air!

Technical credits are polished in every department. Still, what’s missing from Hard Target is Woo’s poetic style and hyper-kinetic force, his visceral jaw-dropping stunts that are as gracefully elegant as balletic movement. It is hoped that in his next American endeavor, Woo will exercise greater control over the writing, casting, and execution of his films, for he’s truly one of half a dozen genius filmmakers who work in the international cinema today.