Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Hard Target (1993)

Hard Target” was the first Jean-Claude Van Damme movie I ever saw. Considering how much I love cheesy action cinema now, you might be surprised to read that I was slow to embrace this particular style. At the time, I was more familiar with John Woo than JCVD, as I had seen “A Better Tomorrow,” “The Killer,” and “Face/Off” a while before. When originally released, “Hard Target” was considered a disappointment, perceived as inferior to Woo’s Hong Kong work. In the years since, it’s become a beloved cult classic, a lovably giddy example of over-the-top action cheese. Van Damme brought Woo to the West and Woo brought out the best in Van Damme.

Nat Binder comes to New Orleans, looking for her estranged father. She finds out he’s homeless and missing. A dead body turns up soon enough. Nat meets Chance Bourdreaux, a former merchant Marine and martial arts expert who is living homeless in Cajun country. Together, the two uncover that Nat’s dad was the victim of a covert operation. Millionaires pay Fouchan and his henchman Van Cliff for a chance to hunt homeless vets through the countryside. Chance and Nat have made themselves targets for the killers for hire. But Chance is the Most Dangerous Game and he’s determined to bring down the twisted operation.

I’m not saying that Van Damme’s previous films were poorly directed. However, the kind of mid-budget action flicks he usually starred in didn’t have someone like John Woo behind the camera. Woo’s camera work establishes a sense of kinetic energy early on. In the opening minutes, we get an arrow’s perspective as it flies through the air. Woo frequently uses a combination of close-ups, quick cutting, and slow motion to emphasize each blow for maximum impact. More then ever before, the audience feels the raw power of Van Damme’s kicks. Each massive explosion is a bold exclamation point. Each bullet lands with a bloody crash. Woo’s direction makes such a strong statement that “Hard Target” truthfully belongs more to him then to its star. (Universal Studios kept Sam Raimi on set, in case Woo’s shaky English had him abandoning the film. It’s easy to see why Raimi and Woo are mutual fans of each other.)

This almost seems to be by design. The director originally sought Kurt Russell for the part of Chance Bourdreaux. You can still see signs of Russell’s low-key, cowboy toughness in the character. Van Damme has actually been emoting more in his recent movies, with the sappy emotion of “Lionheart,” the humor of “Double Impact,” and the slow humanization in “Universe Soldier.” Chance Bourdreaux doesn’t have time for any of that. He’s a stoic, heroic bad ass of few words. Yet Van Damme’s physicality still takes him a long way. He’s gotten better at saying a lot with a little. A head tilt or a hushed line reading is enough to establish Chance’s inner life. As far as kicking ass and taking names go, he’s more then capable of that too.

That “Hard Target” focuses on action over anything else isn’t a problem. Van Damme kicking a guy through a storefront and dropping someone on a car is only the beginning. Quite a lot of time is devoted to establishing the human hunting ring, as well as Chance and Nat’s relationship. About an hour passes before “Hard Target” cuts loose. Then the film never slows down. Van Damme twirls and shoots the bad guys before spin-kicking someone off a motorcycle. He then surfs atop that motorcycle while firing a gun, leaps off the cycle over a truck, and then blasts the truck before both it and the bike explode in a huge fireball. The finale takes place in a warehouse full of old Mardi Gras floats, a great location. Van Damme kicks a can of gas into the air before shotgunning it. He swings on a rope, somersaults through open flames, and duel wields pistols. Bad guys flip head over heels and are shotgunned across the room. Sparks, shattered glass, bloody squibs, and doves are everywhere. Despite the heavy gun play, there’s still plenty of room for Jean-Claude’s trademark high kicks. In other words, “Hard Target” is so awesome that the scene where Van Damme punches out a snake is one of the least outrageous moments. It’s glorious.

Matching the beautifully over-the-top action is a pair of wonderfully over-the-top villains. Lance Henriksen brings all of his gravely gravitas to the part of Fouchan. Henriksen barks viciously. He shoots down his own men, dissatisfied with their performances. When not murdering homeless veterans, he lounges in a swanky mansion and plays on a piano. Fouchan is evil as hell and what makes that worst is how casual he is about it. He’s a businessman, out to maximize profit, and sees Chance’s resistance more as an inconvenience. Henriksen’s best moment is when his jacket catches on fire amid the last act’s pyrotechnics, an unplanned moment. Lance never breaks character and tosses off the burning coat while continuing his dialogue. Awesome. Backing Lance up is Arnold Voosloo as Van Cliff, Fouchan’s equally psychotic main henchman. Van Cliff has no problem machine gunning a street full of innocent by-standers and happily accepts Chance as a worthy adversary.

Did I mention that “Hard Target” also features Wilford Brimley as a Cajun cowboy? Who explodes a moonshine still with an arrow, setting off a bomb that also murders some bad dudes? Of course, Brimley’s attempts at a Cajun accent are ridiculous but it’s hard to care when he does the above. Brimley’s few scenes with Van Damme feature some solid back-and-forth. Yancy Butler co-stars as Nat. Butler is alright in the early scenes, when she’s digging up the information about her missing father. However, once the action starts, she becomes little more then a prop, tossed around by the heroes and the villains. Her sole action beat involves shooting a guy in the balls, after which she spontaneously cries. This is not dissimilar to the roles women usually play in John Woo movies.

“The Most Dangerous Game” story arc was well-trotted ground by the time “Hard Target” came along. “Surviving the Game,” another ramped up version of the same story, would come along the next year. “Hard Target” is actually deliberately paced, as it’s about an hour before the film explodes into amazing action. These early scenes focus again and again on the prey being homeless veterans and the hunters being rich guys. This makes it clear that “Hard Target” literalizes how the rich prey on the poor. How the system throws away its soldiers after using them up. By setting its story in New Orleans, “Hard Target” also draws on a sense of Americana. The dilapidated back allies of the city, above ground cemeteries, the Cajun accents, and the retired Marti Gras floats establish a keen sense of place. Despite being directed by a Chinese man and starring a Belgian, “Hard Target” still feels like a definitively American story, about the class struggles and locations of this country.

During filming, Woo and Van Damme reportedly worked together well. After filming wrapped though, JCVD re-edited the movie without the filmmaker’s involvement. Apparantly, John Woo’s originally cut focused more on Lance Henriksen’s villain. Van Damme – not incorrectly – believed people would come to this movie to see him, not Lance. Before this, the MPAA forced the director to submit the movie six times before the commercially dreaded NC-17 rating was resended. Woo’s two hour-plus director’s cut has never been officially released but can be easily found on the internet. If you can brave the bootleg quality, you’re greeted with more romance between Chance and Nat, a sweet stunt of a car spinning through the air, and more blood during the action sequences. In either version, “Hard Target” is a classic of hard-hitting, explosive action. And Van Damme’s greasy Jerhi Curl mullet is amazing too. [9/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 3 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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