Hard Target is a special movie.
Now, most of you are either rolling your eyes or outright laughing, and I’m not sure I blame you. But I don’t care. I know in my heart of hearts that this is a truly special movie, and there’s nothing anyone can do or say to convince me otherwise.
Technically, my introduction into the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme was Street Fighter, but it wasn’t until I put Hard Target in front of my eyes that I truly began to enjoy Van Damme on a level that went beyond ironic, chuckling appreciation. Which, in a way, is sort of strange because Hard Target doesn’t feature his best performance, nor is it even really his best movie (though it’s certainly up there). Hard Target is a special movie because there’s nothing else quite like it within the entirety of Van Damme’s career. Though his oeuvre is stacked with plenty of movies that feature Van Damme’s brooding swagger, copious gunfights and lots of spin kicks, none of them have ever been combined quite like this, either before or since.
Much of this can be attributed to the direction of John Woo. Hard Boiled had, rightly, gotten the attention of Hollywood and studios were eager to bring him across the pond. (Though not without hesitation, as Sam Raimi was brought in to supervise and possibly even commandeer the production should Woo, who was sketchy at best with his English, be unable to complete the film.) It’s interesting to note that Woo originally wanted Kurt Russell to star in this adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, but couldn’t secure the actor due to two years worth of previous commitments on Russell’s part. The role went to Van Damme instead with the action quotient being heavily increased thanks to his involvement. It’s actually a little difficult to see Russell taking on a role like Chance Boudreaux, mostly because Russell just sort of strikes me as 100 percent Yankee. Though his mullet may be epic in its greasiness, Van Damme actually feels like he belongs in the dilapidated portions of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
That Woo sets his first American film in the French Quarter is interesting. The locale is underused as is within cinema, but certainly that much moreso within action cinema. New York, Los Angeles, Detroit … these are where one would expect an action flick to be set (assuming the effort is made to specifically identify where the violence erupts). The French Quarter (and by extension a lot of New Orleans) is a place that feels like one of the United States’ most exotic locations but not necessarily ground zero for balletically choreographed gun violence. It’s where you go to eat crazy delicious food and see crazy people dress in all manner of crazy costumes, not watch a crazy Belgian do crazy spin kicks on dirtbike-riding thugs. It’s a left-field choice, to be sure, but it’s one that only benefits the film.
Van Damme himself was something of an exotic choice, too in a way. That his action scenes often focused more on his martial arts capabilities than straight fist/gun fights made him a unique choice for a director whose stock in trade had almost entirely revolved around firearms. Indeed, Woo seems cognizant of this in his introduction of Van Damme’s Boudreaux character. Clad in a long overcoat, sleeves rumpled up past the elbow, Boudreaux purposefully resembles a gunfighter, a comparison made all the clearer once Woo has Van Damme swipe away the side of his coat his leg in a manner that’s usually reserved for the revelation of a revolver. But instead of swiftly pulling a pistol, Boudreaux instead is a quickdraw with his kicks, making short work of a band of thugs outside a saloo…er, diner.
There are a few other elements that make me think Woo was hoping to make his own version of a western, what with the chase sequence with Boudreaux on horseback, a jump from a bridge onto a moving train, as well as Wilford Brimley’s penchant for shooting bad guys with a bow and arrow. It’s actually kind of shame this is the closest we’ll likely ever get to an honest-to-goodness western from Woo.
Still, this one stands out among the rest of Woo’s American output as it’s the one (along with Face/Off) that feels less compromised than stuff like Broken Arrow. Yes, there’s a good amount of deleted footage (Woo had to submit no less than six cuts to the MPAA before they would grant an R rating), but none of it feels particularly more “Woo.” Hard Target was already missing the buckets of blood that had already become a stylistic trademark and the cut footage mostly just feels a bit repetitive. So mark me among the camp that doesn’t really mind the omissions. It’s kind of toothless when you put it up against the rampant carnage of The Killer or Hard Boiled, but then so are the vast majority of action flicks.
If nothing else, this features the most stylish and well-choreographed/photographed action of Van Damme’s entire career. Absolutely no one shoots an action scene like Woo, and Van Damme absolutely benefits from that sort of expertise. He’s never looked as good in motion before or since. Only Tsui Hark’s Knock Off comes close to matching Hard Target. Yes, it’s watered-down Woo, but, as Sam Raimi himself said, even Woo operating at 70 percent is still better than most American directors operating at 100 percent. (Speaking of Sam Raimi, it would not surprise me at all to find out he directed the opening credits sequence. The use of first person perspective and the quick cuts to the flying crossbow bolt feel like vintage Raimi, but I digress.)
If all we got out of this was some solid Van Damme swagger and some of the best action choreography of his career, this would still be one for the books. But no, Hard Target doesn’t stop there. We get the following: Lance Henriksen devouring scenery. Arnold Vosloo gnawing on the remains. Wilford Brimley as Van Damme’s horse-riding, bow and arrow-shooting, moonshine-making Cajun uncle from the bayou. One of the most inexplicable exchanges of dialogue in any JCVD movie ever (see the quotes in the statistics section below). Van Damme’s god-like mullet. And, in one of the greatest moments of cinema ever filmed, Jean-Claude Van Damme punches out a rattlesnake.
Hard Target isn’t special because it was John Woo’s Hollywood debut. Hard Target is a special movie because it mixes together moments and elements that range from fantastic to terrible to outright laughter-inducing. For every moment that thrills, there’s one that feels equally chuckle-worthy. And yet the film never stops to really ruminate on any of them. It barrels forward with an unstoppable confidence, simply presenting all of this for your cinematic enjoyment and on that level it never once fails to deliver. This is ridiculous cinema in the best way possible and I can’t imagine it being even half as entertaining and enjoyable with anyone but Van Damme and his curly, greasy, awe-inspiring mullet. Hard Target may not be his best movie, but it is far and away one of his most entertaining. That’s honestly all I can ever ask of it.
Van Dammage Report Statistics for Hard Target:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 2
Reason for being European: Cajun raised by his uncle in the bayous of southern Louisiana
Boudreaux: “How does it feel to hunted!?”
Fouchon: “Why don’t you tell me!?”
Boudreaux: “You should know better!”
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Nowhere to Run, Universal Soldier, Double Impact,
Death Warrant, Lionheart, Kickboxer, Cyborg, Bloodsport.