Monday, 1 June 2009

Hard Target (1993)

So Van Damme decided to bring Hong Kong action master John Woo over to the United States to make another version of that hoary chestnut, The Most Dangerous Game, the story where rich people hunt humans for sport (the Ice T/Rutger Hauer version, Surviving The Game, would come out one year later). Woo was known in cult film circles for making awesome films where Chow Yun Fat would wear a trenchcoat and shoot a million dudes with two 45 handguns while chewing a toothpick and then some doves would fly through underscoring the poetic ballet of the mayhem. Hollywood action films had been aping his shit for the last ten years at that point in 1993 so it was his turn to turn the action genre on its head by making films in the West. While Hard Target was dismissed as an impure John Woo film, what with the censors forcing him to trim down the violence substantially and critics complaining that he had to cope with Van Damme’s acting limitations, even the film that stands as the perfect fusion of Woo and Hollywood, Face/Off, is still pretty silly on reflection (don’t get me wrong, I love Face/Off), so give Van Damme a break because Hard Target is fucking kick-ass. What other film opens with its screenwriter, Chuck Pfarrer (a former SEAL team commander), playing the first victim, a grizzled Vietnam vet who is hunted down and shot to shit with spinning steel arrows by a tanned rich yuppie, flanked by the nefarious Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his henchman Pik Van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo), the organisers of this secret hunting club?

Turns out that the homeless vet had a daughter who is played by Yancy Butler and her eyebrows venture out to find the father she never knew in an open top convertible through the mean streets of New Orleans. She turns up at a sleazy diner, flashing her cash and standing out in her yuppie wear. When she returns to her car outside, she is cornered by a dozen sleazy low-lives in broad daylight who proceed to slap her around, desiring to rob and rape her. Now we’ve already had one slow-mo intro shot to the formidable gelled mullet of Jean Claude Van Damme’s character, Chance Boudreaux, a Cajun drifter who sitting by himself at the diner counter eating some gumbo and calling it a “tragedy” to the waitress in his thick Belgian, sorry, Cajun accent. We then receive a second slow-mo intro shot with some B.B. King style slide guitar blues intro music as Chance steps onto the scene to showdown with the neighbourhood roughs, issuing the classic line to the tough guy with the flick-knife, “Why don’t you take your big stick and you boyfriend and find a bus to catch.” Of course, these punks aren’t listening even if they could decipher what Van Damme is saying and so they laugh and say stuff like “This guy’s funny” and proceed to surround him in the great tradition of every martial arts film ever made. Woo shows that he knows how to film this action shit as we get a solid ten minutes of Van Damme performing slow-mo high kicks to all the sleazy dudes, even going so far as to throw a guy through a store glass window like they were in a goddamned western and then taking a page out of the Seagal playback and snapping one dude’s arm backwards. “Y’know, it’s a shame,” Van Damme slurs as he hands back Yancy Butler’s purse as she sits behind the wheel of her car in shock, “this used to be such a nice part of town.” Then as Yancy Butler stares in awe Woo shots a slow-mo hero shot of Van Damme walking away slowly down the street, a parked car in the background picking up a lens flare before the image dissolves into the American flag and no one is in doubt: THIS MAN IS A HERO OF OUR TIMES. This is the Woo style; totally melodramatic and totally sincere. We get a third intro-hero-shot when Yancy Butler finally convinces Chance to help her track down her father and at first he refuses but then agrees turning up stoically behind a truck with tin drums that are moved aside to reveal him with another blues boogie guitar flourish on the soundtrack as he walks towards the camera in slow-mo.

Yancy Butler: “What kind of name is Chance?”
Van Damme: “Well, my mama took one.”

Great exchanges in this sucker. Van Damme is handed a decent amount of one-liners he sneers through such as when he’s been assaulted by henchmen and winds up in a police station asking the cops, “What did you arrest me for? Getting beat up without a license?” Anyway as Yancy Butler and Van Damme prowl around the Big Easy looking for clues, we have the bad guys preparing another hunt. The villains in this film are pretty great. First you have Voosloo, better known as The Mummy from The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, introduced glowering in the dark with his bald head and deep eyes like he was Nosferatu. Eventually we understand how evil he is when he punches a fat sleazoid local operator right in the stomach while he is sleeping and then when the fat guy is being pulled up for fucking up a detail in the last hunt, he cuts off one of the fat guy’s ears with a pair of scissors and then quips the line, “He’s all ears.” Then you have the head villain played by the awesome Lance Henriksen (c'mon, Bishop from Aliens)who glowers like the best of them with his impressively lined and granite-like face, sitting around in his white luxurious mansion playing a white grand piano wearing a white silk shirt in a poetic touch that is supposed to show us his soul or some deep shit like that, while espousing new clients Nietzsche-type maxims like “It’s always the privilege of the few to hunt the many.” Of course, as vaguely European, upper class villains there is a thin line of homoeroticism in the main villain/second-in-command relationship, which comes to the boil when Van Damme and Yancy Butler discover the nefarious details of this evil hunting club and naturally Van Damme becomes their Hardest Target, but then you shouldn’t hunt what you can’t kill, and Van Damme’s so skilled that the hunter becomes the prey if you follow me.

The first half hour is pretty much atmosphere with lots of scenes of Van Damme being tough, like the scene where he drops in on the fat guy with one ear and purrs “Listen to me very carefully”, and then a few more scenes of Henriksen and Voosloo violently killing people in spectacular ways, such as the police doctor they pay to fake autopsy reports who is eliminated with the old standby of looking through his front door’s peephole and receiving a bullet in the eye. Then Van Damme, Yancy Butler and the only cop they trust, played by Kasi Lemmons, who could have been two days from retirement with the way she is gunned down, are all attacked and Van Damme grabs a pistol and starts performing some slow-mo shoot-outs against an armada of black vans and motorcycles filled with assassins. The action is gloriously non-stop in this chase sequence with Van Damme high-kicking one speeding motorcycle assassin in the head, breaking their neck, and then jumping on the motorcycle to make his getaway. Eventually Van Damme proceeds to surf on the seat of a motorcycle while firing his hand gun, speeding down a closed freeway ramp and into an oncoming van of assassins, letting the motorbike slam into them as he flips over the vehicle in a somersault, landing behind them and firing several shots until they explode. All of this is capped off by a hearty “Yeah!” by Van Damme. A-grade execution, Mr Woo.

The rest of the film includes: Van Damme grabbing a snake by the neck, punching it unconscious and then setting it up as a trap for Henriksen and his band of yuppie asshole hunters; an appearance from Cocoon’s Wilford Brimley playing Chance’s moonshine drinking Uncle who helps kill assassins with a trusty bow and arrow; Van Damme grabbing his trusty silver shotgun which is filmed in erotic slow-motion as if it was the modern-day Excalibur; a massive showdown shootout in an abandoned factory with creepy circus shit everywhere that goes into action overkill as there are only so many shotgun blasts and explosions you can handle; Van Damme riding on a paper mache Pelican and shotgunning bad guys to death like an avenging Carnival angel; Van Damme shooting a hand-gun upside down for no good reason with his pinkie finger, filling renown stuntman Sven Thorsen (the villain from Abraxas) full of holes and then fly-kicking the cigar from Sven’s mouth; Van Damme and Voosloo back to back against a dividing wall, reloading their two handguns each and exchanging snappy patter in a draft of the similar scene that occurs in Face/Off; Henriksen with his trenchcoat on fire which he takes off with a roar; and then Van Damme beating the shit out of Henriksen, saying “How does it feel to be hunted?” and dropping a grenade in Henriksen’s pants and high-kicking him to his explosive death with the concluding line, “Hunting season is over.” Then Van Damme, Yancy Butler and Wilfred Brimley all start to laugh it up, walking away from the wreckage while Creedance Clearwater Revival’s ‘Born on the Bayou’ plays over the closing credits. There you have it. John Woo comes to America so that Van Damme can kick New Orleans another arsehole in the name of homeless people everywhere who are hunted by rich arseholes.


dan said...

haha man i have already slurred my theories on woo's relationship with hollywood to you enough times already, but damn. i love the slow-mo and all that inspirational music!

also van damme doesn't do a lot of shooting in any other films! thanks, john woo.

tristan said...

I was like everyone else and derided this film on its original release but now looking back on it, it's quite entertaining and not as dumb as Windtalkers. Haha, and yes, Woo helped out Van Damme there with the slow-motion gun-fu!