Hard Target (1993) ***
I like how the 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting Ultimate Hobo-Hunting Championship has afforded me the opportunity to take on two important filmmakers whose works mostly fall outside my area of coverage. And while David A. Prior may be the kind of creator whose significance is easily missed, the other guy making his debut in these pages thanks to a riff on “The Hounds of Zaroff” is one whose name should be known at least in passing to any well-versed fan of modern exploitation cinema. Hard Target was the first English-language movie from John Woo, the director who revolutionized Hong Kong action cinema in the mid-1980’s. Beginning with A Better Tomorrow, Woo moved away from period settings and martial arts fisticuffs toward the style alternately known as heroic bloodshed or gun-fu, and his success dragged much of the Cantonese movie industry along behind him. In the 90’s, Woo was prominent among the crop of movie people who decamped from Hong Kong to Hollywood in anticipation of the end of Britain’s 99-year lease on the territory (due to expire on July 1st, 1997) and the consequent transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from London to Beijing. I didn’t yet know about him at the time, but I have it on good authority that Hard Target was eagerly awaited by those who did. What kind of film would Woo make with the weight of an American movie studio behind him? Might he even do for Western action pictures what he’d already done for their counterparts back home? At the same time, though, Hard Target was also a cause of trepidation. What if, instead of seeding domestic shoot-’em-ups with his heroic bloodshed sensibility, Woo permitted himself to be gobbled up by the corporate sausage factory of Hollywood, muting if not silencing one of the world’s most exciting cinematic voices?
As we now know, what happened was somewhere in between, or even a mix of both. Woo’s highest-profile English-language movies were bizarre mediocrities, albeit bizarre mediocrities that sold enormous numbers of tickets. Too often, the style that once seemed visionary dwindled to a mere collection of tics and eccentricities. And yet Woo did briefly conquer Hollywood. He just did it at one or two removes, via intermediaries like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and the Wachowskis. To appreciate the magnitude of Woo’s influence on Western action cinema in the 90’s and into the 2000’s, watch Hard Target, and then watch Desperado, True Romance, or even Grosse Pointe Blank. For that matter, compare Woo’s mature Hong Kong work to the wave of French crime thrillers which ultimately came ashore here in the form of The Professional. But now let’s go back to a time when all that was just one fuzzy potentiality among many, with everything riding on the performance of a swamp-rock-flavored update of The Most Dangerous Game.
As befits the weird mix of liberality and Free Market triumphalism that characterized the 1990’s, Hard Target’s Count Zaroff is no reclusive aristocrat, but an entrepreneur with an innovative business model. His name is Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen, from Mansion of the Doomed and Aliens), and he and his gang travel the world from one lawless trouble spot to the next, peddling the ultimate illicit thrill. For just a few hundred thousand dollars, Fouchon’s men will round up a drifter, a bum, or some other specimen of surplus humanity for you to hunt through the manmade jungles of societies in collapse. Right now, they’re operating out of New Orleans, which in those days had a not unjustified reputation as the Detroit of the South. Even so, the city is not so dysfunctional as to allow Fouchon a completely free hand, so his games there are run on a “volunteer” basis. Randall Poe (Eliott Keener, of Angel Heart and The Savage Bees), the crooked proprietor of a phone sex line, pays homeless military veterans to apply for the position of prey, and Fouchon offers each man chosen $10,000 in hush money if he survives the hunt by crossing the river from the particularly blighted neighborhood that serves as Fouchon’s playing field. Not that he’s ever needed to pay up, mind you. His clientele are all experienced hunters, so they’re naturally pretty good shots.
The first victim with whom we need concern ourselves is Douglas Binder (Chuck Pfarrer, who also wrote Hard Target’s screenplay). Binder served Marine Recon with distinction in Vietnam, but his life went progressively to shit during the twenty years since his marriage fell apart. Eventually he wound up homeless, and thereby fell into Fouchon’s hands. But unbeknownst to his murderers, Binder had a 30-ish daughter named Natasha (Yancy Butler, from Savage Weekend and Ravager) who gets worried when he stops replying to her letters. She gets worried enough, in fact, to come looking for him, checking in with his last known landlady, the other guys who hang out at his favorite homeless shelter, and an incredibly unhelpful police detective by the name of Marie Mitchell (Kasi Lemmons, of Vampire’s Kiss and The Silence of the Lambs). She has little luck, though, until she hires Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, from Cyborg and Universal Soldier) to help her search. A Navy SEAL turned merchant sailor who’s been out of work since he lost his union card for falling into arrears on his dues, Chance is undoubtedly the most badass down-and-outer in all of New Orleans— as he demonstrates by singlehandedly kung-fuing an entire pack of purse-snatchers into submission. With the aid of another homeless vet called Roper (Willie C. Carpenter, of Amityville 1992: It’s About Time and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood), Boudreaux traces Binder back to Poe, and even turns up a vital clue that the cops missed once the vanished man’s body is found, burned almost beyond recognition, in the ruins of an abandoned building.
The growing effectiveness of Nat and Chance’s efforts alarms Fouchon into taking action. He sends a goon squad to pound some sense into Boudreaux, silences (which is to say, kills) the corrupt medical examiner (Marco St. John, from Friday the 13th: Part V: A New Beginning and The Happiness Cage) who always made sure the deaths of his victims were dismissed as accidental, and begins making arrangements to split New Orleans for someplace more hospitable. He even orders his right-hand man, Pik Van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo, of Gor and Odysseus: Voyage to the Underworld) to tie off the loose end represented by Randall Poe. But before the Fouchon gang pull up stakes, they have one last hunt scheduled in New Orleans, for Middle Eastern oil asshole Ismail Zenan (Joe Warfield). It just so happens that Roper is the volunteer selected to be Zenan’s quarry, and although he eludes the paying customer well enough, Van Cleef and the rest of Fouchon’s “dogs” are another story. I guess that hush money was just a con, huh? That, as Roman Moroni would say, is Fargin War— war to be waged not only by Chance and Nat, but also by the now much more motivated Detective Mitchell and even by Boudreaux’s swamp-hermit uncle, Douvee (Wilford Brimley, from 10 to Midnight and The Thing).
You can already see in Hard Target the beginning of that dwindling effect I was talking about before. At times, this movie plays almost like a parody of Woo’s Hong Kong work. Doves for no reason! Slo-mo for no reason! Shit exploding into flames for no reason! People two-fisting their pistols and holding them damnfool-sideways! Antagonists shit-talking each other while reloading their guns on opposites sides of the same barrier! It’s all here, and it all just looks silly. I’m not at all certain why, either, but I keep thinking about cultural context. Maybe heroic bloodshed worked in part because it was Chinese. Maybe it had about it the dignity of the foreign when actual foreigners were doing it, but can muster no comparable substitute gravitas when enacted by a bunch of Hollywood honkies. (Incidentally, how the hell is it that Elijah Roper and Marie Mitchell are apparently the sole black inhabitants of fucking New Orleans?!?!) Whatever the cause, Hard Target’s Woo-isms come on a bit too strong, even after a notorious campaign of studio interference aimed at toning them down.
John Woo is much more than the sum of his foibles, however, and Hard Target improves markedly once you look beyond them. This movie amply demonstrates the breadth of his mastery over big, complicated action scenes. Along with shootouts galore, it has fist-fights, vehicle stunts, and chases in several distinct flavors, up to and including horse vs. helicopter. All that stuff is handled with an expert sense of coordination, timing, suspense, and spectacle. It’s also handled with an eye for the majestic image that overcomes all but the most flagrant directorial excesses.
The cast, too, is something of a mixed bag, although once again I think the good outweighs the bad. Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo are both great, full of securely bottled-up menace. Their performances also communicate a strong sense of the friendship between Fouchon and Van Cleef. I always appreciate it when the villains have relationships beyond master and henchman, perhaps especially when there doesn’t seem to be anything in the script to require such an interpretation. In Hard Target, the bond between Fouchon and Van Cleef isn’t entirely unsupported by dialogue or scripted action, but it plainly exists mainly in how Henriksen and Vosloo play off of each other. At the other extreme, Yancy Butler is just awful— I mean, barely a step short of “Bo Derek in Orca” awful. As she plods dully and mechanically through the film, I promise you’ll come to thank Woo and screenwriter Pfarrer for their initially dodgy decision to put Boudreaux in the driver’s seat during the search for Nat’s father. Jean-Claude Van Damme is better than usual, but not as good as he was capable of being when everything went just right. Besides his reliable work as a physical performer, he twists his natural Belgian accent into an acceptable counterfeit of a Cajun one, and even hits the desired note of wry self-deprecation when called on to deliver a one-liner. My favorite example of the latter is Chance’s riposte when asked why he’s involving himself in Nat’s quest: “Poor people get bored too.” The real treat in this cast, though, is the astonishing spectacle of Wilford Brimley, Action Hero. It was one thing to see the Oatmeal Guy play a nursing home inmate mysteriously invigorated by alien metabolic waste-products, or even a biologist succumbing to cabin fever, paranoia, and finally infection with a doppelganger disease from outer space. Never for a second did I expect to see him one day riding a horse through a hail of gunfire and shrapnel, or trading shots with gangsters in a warehouse full of Mardi Gras parade floats. Crucially, Brimley seems well aware of the absurdity of his role, even as he gives it his full commitment. Watching him, you get the feeling that Uncle Douvee can’t quite believe he’s doing this shit, either.