Hard Target (1993, John Woo), the unrated version

There’s nothing spectacularly wrong with Hard Target. It’s a competently executed early nineties action movie. There’s a lot of good stunt work and some amazing pyrotechnics. Lance Henriksen is great as the villain. Wilford Brimley is in it as a Cajun assault archer. Almost everything about it is absurd, but not really out of the ordinary for the genre. It even tries for serious with a little bit of social consciousness–Henriksen is playing the most dangerous game with homeless veterans.

Director Woo is fantastic at making the perfunctory plot points seem sincere. He’ll slow down the close-up, leaving the viewer to inspect the actor’s reaction to something. Usually it’s Butler seeing lead Jean-Claude Van Damme do some amazing feat. One time he’s just standing there and it’s Butler in awe of the standing Van Damme. That scene is an example of something else wrong–but not spectacularly so–with Hard Target. No one’s willing to have any fun. Not even Brimley, when he finally shows up.

There’s no humor in Chuck Pfarrer’s script–at least no successful humor–but Van Damme’s character is particularly thin. He’s a man of mystery. So Woo’s impulse is to go for charming man of mystery and Van Damme botches it. Van Damme can’t even wink. He’ll make these single rapid eye movements towards a character and everyone pretends it’s a wink. He’s without charm.

But Van Damme’s not unbearable. His pseudo-Cajun accent needs work and he looks like a romance cover hero, not a down-on-his-luck street fighting merchant seaman. His stringy mullet is funny, especially once all the stunts start up and you have to wonder if Van Damme had to have the mullet because his mullet-wearing stuntmen aren’t willing to cut theirs off. And Woo’s direction of a couple Van Damme fight scenes is excellent. The fist fight isn’t Woo’s interest though; even when there are fisticuffs in post-first act fight scenes, Woo rushes to get guns in those hands. Van Damme’s not great at the gunfights, but then he starts doing somersaults through the air and seems happy again. Lots of flips in Hard Target. None of them convincing and they get old fast.

Luckily, they’re in the finale so it doesn’t matter. It’s all almost over.

There are some good performances. Henriksen, most of Arnold Vosloo (as Henriksen’s sidekick), Willie C. Carpenter; Kasi Lemmons is okay as the one cop. There’s a strike going on, which seems like it might be a subplot but isn’t. Hard Target doesn’t do subplots.

Leading lady Yancy Butler is pretty slight. Woo wants a lot of emoting. Butler emotes a little less than Van Damme, who’s got the emotional range of a rock pile. Thanks to Bob Murawski’s editing, occasionally Woo can imply something from Butler for a moment or two. It’s not like Chuck Pfarrer’s script gives her any depth either. Thank goodness for Woo.

Nice photography from Russell Carpenter. Nice editing from Murawski. Awful music from Graeme Revell.

Despite Woo’s direction, Henriksen’s villainy, the New Orleans locations, and the strong technical competence, Hard Target doesn’t click. The major action set pieces of the second half disappoint. Because the movie needs a sense of humor. Not Brimley drying gnawing at the scenery.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Woo; written by Chuck Pfarrer; director of photography, Russell Carpenter; edited by Bob Murawski; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Phil Dagort; produced by Sean Daniel and James Jacks; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (Chance Boudreaux), Lance Henriksen (Fouchon), Yancy Butler (Nat), Arnold Vosloo (Van Cleef), Kasi Lemmons (Mitchell), Willie C. Carpenter (Elijah), and Wilford Brimley (Uncle Douvee).


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