John Woo, cult director of the new Hong Kong Cinema, makes his eagerly awaited American debut with “Hard Target,” a briskly vigorous, occasionally brilliant actioner starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. However, hampered by a B-script with flat, standard characters, and subjected to repeated editing of the violent sequences to win an R rating, pic doesn’t bear the unique vision on display in Woo’s recent “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled.” Van Damme and the director’s reputation should ensure initial commercial kick on the way to solid if not spectacular box office.
Chuck Pfarrer, who also co-produced and plays a small role, fashions his script as a variation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” a classic story that has received numerous film versions, such as the 1932 Joel McCrea vehicle, Robert Wise’s 1946 “A Game of Death,” and Roy Boulting’s 1956 “Run For the Sun.”
With locale switched from a remote island to urban New Orleans, tale centers on a sadistic band of hunters, headed by amoral chief Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his deputy Van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo), who operate a profitable “safari game” in which the prey are homeless combat veterans.
Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, a down-on-his luck merchant sailor, who comes to the rescue of Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler), a young woman searching for her missing father, the latest victim. At first, Van Damme is willing to help her just for money; he needs $ 217 to pay his union dues in order to get work. Gradually, however, he becomes morally and emotionally committed to the cause.
Unfortunately, “Hard Target’s” script is too schematic, populated with standard thug villains. By now, Lance Henriksen has played so many cold-blooded heavies that just his appearance suggests all there is to know about his deviant , nefarious venture. The tale’s social subtext, pitting the rich hunters against victims willing to bet their lives against a $ 10,000 prize, also gets lost.
Ultimately, “Hard Target” is a compromised work, a stylistic hybrid of the American and Hong Kong action pix.
But compared with American action directors, Woo’s distinctiveness is still in evidence. He is a virtuoso at staging and editing intricate set pieces as seamless choreography — with precision, visual inventiveness and humor.
The pacing, in fact, is so fast that Woo manages to cover Van Damme’s usual inexpressiveness. While Van Damme’s line delivery is still stiff, Woo helps his star display his specialty — high-powered martial arts skills — with greater panache and stylization than before.
“Hard Target” is far superior to Van Damme’s last two outings, “Nowhere to Run” and “Universal Soldier,” and it may also be the first pic in which he doesn’t narcissistically bare his body.
The casting of Yancy Butler as the ingenue is inexplicable. Lacking screen presence or charm, she gives an embarrassing perf.
In contrast, character actor Wilford Brimley brings offbeat humor to his role as Van Damme’s salty Cajun uncle.
The disjointed storytelling, occasional chopped editing and uneven performances undermine what could have been a much better picture. But “Hard Target” still packs a lot of punch and, by American action standards, contains some strikingly impressive set pieces. Woo stages major action sequences in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter and, for the climax, moves to a huge dark warehouse packed with Mardi Gras floats.
Tech credits are polished in every department. Still, what’s missing from “Hard Target” is Woo’s poetic style and hyper-kinetic force, his visceral jaw-dropping stunts that are as gracefully elegant as balletic movement.