Hard Target (1993) – Directed by John Woo – Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yancy Butler, Lance Henriksen, Arnold Vosloo, Kasi Lemmons, Chuck, Pfarrer, and Wilford Brimley.
I love this movie.
HARD TARGET is pretty much the perfect B-movie action film. There’s an insanely talented director teaming up with a solid action star in an easy-to-follow story with plenty of cool action sequences. Is that not enough for you? Okay, we’ve got a ridiculous greasy mullet, Lance Henriksen angrily calling somebody a buffalo, plenty of slow-mo, Arnold Vosloo, a horribly miscast Yancy Butler, effectively used slo-mo, and Wilfred Brimley speaking Cajun.
Let me repeat that last part: WE HAVE WILFORD BRIMLEY SPEAKING CAJUN!
All other arguments are, as the saying goes, now invalid because, as Mr. Brimley so eloquently puts it, “Mopofeesopotone!”
Does it matter?
HARD TARGET was John Woo’s first American film, and reports are that he originally wanted Kurt Russell is this sort-of remake of The Most Dangerous Game. Truthfully, I would have preferred Russel to Jean-Claude Van Damme but Woo uses Van Damme here as well as any director possibly could and, truthfully, this is a better movie because of him. Woo has Van Damme speak little which adds to the overall effect when he does talk, and Woo’s highly-stylized camera work and editing work beautifully with Van Damme’s style of punching and kicking (lots of spinning around leg sweeps and kicks to the face, mostly).
Set in New Orleans, Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) arranges live, human hunts through the city to wealthy hunters who want the challenge of killing humans. The hunted are recruited from the city’s homeless population, favoring military vets to make it more of a challenge. Fouchon and his right hand man, Pik Van Cleef (Vosloo) oversee the hunt, and as the film opens, they’re tracking Douglas Binder (Chuck Pfarrer). The deal made with the homeless vets is that if they reach the bridge at the other end of the city, they’ll walk away with their life and $10,000. Binder doesn’t make it, and a little while later, his daughter Natasha (Butler) arrives looking for him.
I like Yancy Bulter but she’s not right for the part of Natasha, which calls for someone who can play afraid and confused and weepy at a higher level. With Butler, I’m expecting her to jump right into the action, but she spends the first half of the movie looking unsure of herself and unable to do anything without someone helping her.
She goes to the cops for help, but Detective Mitchell (Kasi Lemmons) can only do so much and Butler pouts and storms off. She ends up in the same diner as Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), who saves her when some local thugs want to rough her up after she exits. Natasha wants him to help her find her dad but he refuses. Chance is a seaman but his card has been temporarily revoked because he roughed up the wrong captain, so he agrees to help her for the exact amount of money he needs to get reinstated with the union.
This leads to an inevitable confrontation with Fouchon and Van Cleaf, who decide that they’ve overstayed their welcome in New Orleans and will leave once they kill Chance. Insert lots of fighting and chasing. The fights are solid, but the real joy is in watching Fouchon lose his cool. Henriksen is amazing in HARD TARGET, and when he starts losing his sh*t, the film gets really good. “You are a f*cking buffalo!” he yells at one of his hunters when the chase for Boudreaux hits the swamps.
There’s a perfect mix of fantastic and ridiculous action, which helps to keep the film from falling into a rut. On the fantastic end, we’ve got a warehouse full of discarded Mardi Gras floats, and Chance descends from the ceiling on a swan, shooting at Fouchon’s men with his shotgun. On the ridiculous end, we’ve got Chance punching out a venomous snake. Good stuff.
Chance eventually makes his way to his uncle’s house, and that’s where we get Wilford Brimley and his Cajun accent. No one dislikes having Wilford Brimley around in this film, except for the poor horse that has to cart him around.
HARD TARGET does an excellent job with a simple narrative, continually comparing Fouchon’s wealth with Chance’s poverty, which ends with Boudreaux answering Fouchon’s question of why he’s gotten involved by saying, “Poor people get bored, too.” It’s a clever line, but not a truthful one, as Chance was clearly involved to get his money to go to sea, and then at some point to help Natasha, and at another point to get revenge for Detective Mitchell being gunned down.
I’ve watched this movie a whole lot over the years and I never get tired of it. Woo and Van Damme have both had a checkered career in America, with more misses than hits in their filmography, but HARD TARGET is some of the best work both men have produced on these shores.