Hard Target (1993)

John Woo’s first American picture shows a distinct shift in the director’s work. While his films will contain his distinct style and excessive slow motion, his American films are much tamer than his Hong Kong pictures. In many ways one begins to see Woo’s assimilation into the Hollywood mentality as the heroes become more idealized, the line between good and evil is straightforward and the violence is tamed back.

But that doesn’t stop his plots from being any less ridiculous. If anything, his first American picture is one of his more implausible plots. When Nat Binder (Yancy Butler) comes to New Orleans to find her father she’s greeted by a rough gang. It’s only through the noble Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) that she gets away mostly unscathed. And when she can’t find her father she offers Chance a job to help her find him. The two slowly begin to uncover a perverse underground game her father got caught up in which sounds more like the premise of a bad B-movie than an action film.

But John Woo wraps up the absurdity of the plot in conventions of a classic Western. Granted, being set in the modern age the film is a bit different as revolvers are swapped for pistols and motorcycles are stand in for horses. But the perverse game they uncover is reminiscent of the evil deeds of many a Western baddie and I’d swear I’ve seen a number of similar scenes in other Westerns. Beyond even that Chance is the classic Western hero, noble and heroic, protecting those in need.

He’s even more of that Western hero when you factor in his mysterious past. We don’t really know anything about him by the end and he feels much like a character that could have dropped out of a Sergio Leone Western. Jean-Claude Van Damme is hardcore here, with a plethora of dropkicks, roundhouse kicks to the face as well as some hardcore marksmanship. And in the film’s simultaneously most ridiculous and awesome moments JCVD punches a rattlesnake in the face. Yes, in the face.

But our hero isn’t the only hardcore character of the lot. The film also has a couple of solid villains. The characters themselves are rather cliché, particularly the villain who loves classical music. For the most part they are the maniacal cold-blooded killers that exist in the Saturday morning cartoon universe. It’s the performances that make them work as Arnold Vosloo and Lance Henriksen bring the presence and malice needed to make them threatening to our hero. And I think the plot is structured in such a way that the arrogance of villain that lets the hero get away is actually plausible.

And of course all this conflict is so that Woo can have himself some of that crazy, over the top action. This being his first American feature the action is a lot more restrained than his Hong Kong outings but they still are ridiculously over the top at times, in particular with his liberal usage of slow motion. Sometimes it works at showing us cool things but more often than not it just prolongs the action pieces of the film. It’s entertaining, but it’s certainly not all that memorable or skillful.

John Woo’s first foray into Hollywood is perhaps not as solid as his Hong Kong flicks and it certainly doesn’t reach the same level of ridiculousness that makes Hard Boiled such a fun film. Yet it still remains an effective picture. The narrative works as a kind of Western and the performances are fun to watch but the action itself is pedestrian and the plot is still farfetched.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Hard Target