"Don't hunt what you can't kill." If only the hunted was someone other than Jean Claude Van Damme.
It looked like a John Woo film. It sounded like a John Woo film. It even felt like one sometimes. I kept looking for Chow Yun-Fat. There was something just a little off about the proceedings in Director John Woo's Hard Target . Well, two things really. A little thing called Hollywood got in the way of a visual master. Even funnier, in an odd sort of way, a fellow named Jean Claude Van Damme was cast in the lead. The actor wasn't the least bit Hollywood or even the least bit talented enough to carry the film. I've been informed Kurt Russell was once considered for the part. Oh the insanely criminal injustice of it all.
First, let me extend my thanks to Leopard13 [Lazy Thoughts From A Boomer]for being gracious enough to take time and mail me his sole copy of Hard Target: The Extended Director's Cut. Muchas gracias amigo! I've never taken the time to see the original cut of the film, but I suspect there isn't a need as I'm told this is THE best version of the film hands down. That's too bad too, because I imagine no extension of additional action footage will ever replace the fact Van Damme is in the lead. I thought the least I could do is share a few of my thoughts on the film, thanks to Leopard13, and my ongoing exploration of John Woo.
My desire to check out the John Woo picture stems from viewing John Woo's classic The Killer . To be honest, I had no intention of writing about it, but writing about film is like a sickness. You simply can't resist. Resistance is futile. No matter how hard you try or how certain your intentions, the next thing you know you find yourself with finger to keypad typing away as if touched by madness.
Van Damme: Rattlesnake Killer!
John Woo fans are a generally fierce and ferocious bunch, like fans of Star Trek or fans of just about any form of popular culture or artform. I'm not certain where Hard Target falls in the pantheon of Woo pictures, but it was definitely a solid notch below The Killer. I won't get into the picture with great length or too many details, but I'll attempt to point out the highlights and lowlights of this particular film for me.
"Watch how my mullet can dodge the bullet!"
Beginning with the lowlights, Jean Claude Van Damme is a questionable actor at least based on the evidence here. When you select a lead for an action film, the man must have the pre-requisite cache to carry the picture or it will ring hollow like Hard Target does without the charisma of someone like Chow Yun-Fat. Yun-Fat had charisma in aces with some to spare and it's no wonder Woo relished working with the actor. Van Damme simply doesn't have alot happening behind the eyes or in the face. He's fairly stoic, but more or less like a stone. Kurt Russell's expressive face worked better in Director Paul W.S. Anderson's dialogue-free Soldier and that's not saying much. There's an almost forgettable quality to Van Damme's presence in the film, ironically as forgettable as his character's name, Chance Boudreau. When you watch a film like The Killer there is an abundance of electricity and emotion in the air based on physical presence alone thanks to the caliber of actor like a Yun-Fat. The Belgian-born Van Damme simply doesn't have it at least for this picture. I feel it's not fair to label or hatchet Van Damme. I've not seen one of his films until now. Not one. He has a massive CV and I'd love to hear from folks out there who would recommend or defend one of his pictures. I understand JCVD  was a fine picture, but on the whole when I see Van Damme in the credits I tend to run and run far away, which explains why I'm viewing this for the first time.
I'm making the exception based on the fact it was recommended by friends and that it's a Van Damme film directed by John Woo. Apart from the fact Van Damme is so limited as the film's lead, the role originally considered for Kurt Russell -oh the pain, there were other minor issues. What is going on with that hair on Van Damme's head? The mullet-type doo with salon gel was almost as disturbing as his inability to capture my imagination or attention when he was on screen. The excessive hair gel and floppy mullet was excruciating to watch. In fact, had Kurt Russell upped the ante with his presence, but retained this stye [or lack thereof] I would have been hard pressed to love that target too. I could certainly envision a Russell look a la Escape From New York or The Thing, but not this atrocity and affront to Tabatha's Salon Takeover.
Now, I love Wilford Brimley [The Thing, Our House], but the French accent was almost too much to bear and nearly as weak as the bizarre accented accent of Van Damme. What were the people thinking when they cast this film? It's bizarre. The romantic or female lead, Yancy Butler [Drop Zone, Kick-Ass], is also serviceable at best, but she does capture the semi-cheese factor that inhabits the John Woo world. After all, this is essentially a Woo action movie.
Here comes Mullet boy!
Speaking of the action, and getting to those highlights, the action sequences when they do appear, are arrousing and choreographed as only John Woo can based on his Hong Kong experience. There are some stellar, trademark, slow-motion moments from the hand of Woo and they are breathtaking in their Killer-esque style. [But, and oh boy there's that but.] But, the thing about those action sequences, in my humble opinion, is that they are only as good as the lead propelling them to fruition. Presence is everything in action. Hence, Van Damme does take me out of the picture a bit as he lacks the kind of radiating leading man presence that Chow Yun-Fat has in spades. The action sequences in Hard Target still aren't as good as the classic The Killer I'm sorry to say. Hard Target is still effective and solid in delivering John Woo's American-stateside action debut, but he definitely lost some control in wowing the audience.
"I really hate his mullet! He must die!"
Another high point is Lance Henriksen who easily delivers one of the most sinister bad guy rolls within the cliched genre. Henriksen is perenially underrated, but he is so damn good in the part and in most parts he accepts. He's frightening. There's a reason he inevitably landed the role of Frank Black for the Chris Carter series Millennium. His career is a fascinating one. This is yet another footnote on his amazing resume of films.
Supporting actor Arnold Voosloo [The Mummy] is also solid as Henriksen's right hand henchman. It's never a good sign when the supporting actor is more memorable than the lead.
In the end, I actually enjoyed Hard Target on its face. And like anything on its surface, you need to dig a little deeper for a film to get under your skin. The Killer achieved that for me. Hard Target lacks the masterful touch of an unencumbered John Woo. It also lacks some choice casting decisions. The film truly suffers as a result of these two factors. Despite my mixed reaction to the movie, I liked Hard Target and would recommend this particular Extended Director's Cut for a viewing. I'm told the action sequences are more intact as a result of this cut. Without those sequences, Hard Target would suffer. As it is, I would have liked more action to compensate for the film's shortcomings. This is clearly the only cut to find.
Check my mullet move boy!
Despite my conservative ways, I'm reminded of the brilliant line by late Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, Lloyd Bentsen, delivered to Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Dan Quayle, "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" [in response to Quayle's comparison of himself to Jack Kennedy]. Well, I've seen The Killer. I've experienced The Killer. The Killer is a personal favorite of mine. Hard Target my friend, you're nothing like The Killer. Chow Yun-Fat is also a far more fascinating hard target. I'm simply unable to avoid comparison. Still, for what it is, Hard Target is a decent action film thanks to John Woo. It's success rests squarely with Woo and the work of Henriksen. I don't know, maybe I have a thing against stocky, muscular Belgian leads running around the bayou as my hero, but was there not a more viable alternative to Jean Claude Van Damme? Getting that particular target right might have made the difference. Did I mention the plot? Really.
Hard Target: B
Actor Footnote: Jean Claude Van Damme [1960-present]. I do use the term actor loosely. His action highlights include: No Retreat, No Surrender , Bloodsport , Black Eagle , Cyborg , Kickboxer , Death Warrant , Lionheart , Double Impact , Universal Soldier , Hard Target , Nowhere To Run , Street Fighter , Timecop , Sudden Death , Maximum Risk , The Quest , Double Team , Legionnaire , Knock Off , Universal Soldier: The Return , Inferno/Desert Heat , The Order , Replicant , Derailed , In Hell , Wake Of Death , The Hard Corps , Second In Command , Sinav , Until Death , The Shepherd: Border Patrol , JCVD , Universal Soldier: Regeneration  and The Eagle Path . His career path has been interesting working with Roland Emmerich, Peter Hyams [and his son], Tsui Hark to eventually directing himself. Have you noticed the box covers to these films look an awful lot alike? Perhaps I will give Van Damme a second chance with JCVD.