Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hard Target

The Action Mutant…
would make a joke about Lance Henriksen being “flaming” but is afraid he would be glared to death.

Hard Target

review by Joe Burrows

(Note: Interesting to point out that after 132 reviews, this will be my first review of a Jean Claude Van Damme flick. I agree, it’s long overdue. I’m assuming that you are agreeing with me.)

At one time, a foreign filmmaker doing an American studio film for the first time was considered a big deal. When it was announced John Woo would be directing his first American made feature, the JCVD vehicle Hard Target, there was a sense of excitement but really more of unease. The inevitable questions arose…Would Universal, the film’s distributor, break down their new find & have him make the film the way an American studio film should? Would the MPAA neuter the bloody, grandiose violence that Woo was known for from his Hong Kong efforts? Would Wilford Brimley ride in on a horse, jump onto a larger horse, then a slightly smaller horse & ride off into the sunset? If you can’t figure out the answers to these questions (well, at least the first two) then you haven’t read too much about these sorts of things.

Problems began almost immediately, as Universal hired director Sam Raimi to be one of the executive producers in the event that he would become the “real” director of the flick once Woo fucked up. Raimi looked at it as an opportunity to work with one of his heroes, which was a far more respectable stance shown towards Woo than anyone at Universal showed. It got more ridiculous as studio execs were on set every day (during a two month shooting schedule, a timeframe half that of his filming of his opus Hard Boiled a year previous) handing down mandates on how many people could die during a scene, how much they could be shot & most likely how many squibs could be used! And then, there was Van Damme. Still having the clout of a major movie star at the time, JCVD felt during the editing process (which shockingly didn't involve Woo) that the film could use more of him…more Van Damme close-ups, more Van Damme action shots, more Van fucking Damme! Even if entire characters or scenes had to be compromised, so be it! People were paying to see him, not some guy with a fixation on guns & doves flying in slo-mo. When Woo delivered his 116 minute cut of Hard Target, Universal balked at the length (probably figuring JCVD fans didn’t have an attention span to stick with their hero for two hours). On top of that, the MPAA slapped Woo with the ever deadly NC-17 rating & had him edit and submit the film seven times before it was given an R. Hard Target made it to theaters at the end of the summer of 1993 at 97 minutes & while profitable, was nowhere near the success anyone had thought it would be. Woo’s career arguably never recovered, despite a few successful American features (Face/Off, the almost parody level Woo that was M-I:2). Amazingly, if this was all done in the present day, fans would most likely have to wait only a handful of months before the Director’s Cut would be available on DVD & all parties (studio, MPAA, fans, director, star) would be satisfied. It’s a shame that ego & supposed morality have gotten in the way of more than one promising effort and it’s even more of a shame that no one will seemingly ever learn from these mistakes.

The Plot, as it was:
Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, a merchant seaman (heh…merchant) who’s hard up for money in New Orleans. He takes the offer of distraught woman Nat Binder (Yancy Butler) to help her look for her homeless father (Chuck Pfarrer, the film’s screenwriter), whom she hasn’t seen in years. They find out that he’s been murdered as part of a sick game set up by madman Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) where the latter enlists homeless combat vets to be chased through the N.O. streets by millionaires paying for the “rush” of hunting down another man. Emil’s men start killing off anyone close to the deceased Binder but soon realize that Boudreaux will not be easy to silence, especially when Chance makes his way to the backwoods where he grew up. Regardless of what you may have heard, hunting season has just begun!

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
Despite all of the studio tomfoolery & MPAA dickery, Hard Target is still a pretty entertaining action showcase. The amount of dilution of Woo’s trademarks cannot totally take away from the fact that it is still a John Woo film, though more in a B movie sense. There’s still enough to satisfy an ardent Woo mark, even if nothing gets anywhere close to the crazed brilliance of Hard Boiled or The Killer. The action set pieces are the flick’s bread n’ butter, as they get progressively larger in scale until the warehouse finale, which is classic Woo the whole way through. As a pure Action film in America, few can touch Hard Target even if it was made 15 years ago. Unfortunately, every other aspect of HT is scattershot at best, which leads to its mixed reception. The main discrepancy for me has to be the old genre problem of having far more compelling villains than heroes. Though not exactly unexpected, Henriksen is the main reason to see this as far as performances go. He turns Fouchon into an amoral slime on par with Clarence Boddicker in Robocop & his role would probably be on par with that one in people’s minds if this film was looked at more favorably. The inflections he adds to certain lines & subtle movements (like the Napoleon stance when he orders his men) make his act far better than the final product deserves. Hell, he allowed himself to be set on fire for one scene…how can you not love that? As Fouchon’s second Van Cleef, Arnold Vosloo (The Mummy) brings a sardonic glee to his work & compliments Lance’s glower. This is all well and good because when it comes to the face side, it turns into a Horror film situation where you can’t help but want to root for the killer(s). A side of drywall could have been put in Butler’s place for as much emotion she displays, with her range going from “comatose” to “slightly startled”. You would think this would make JCVD look positively Looney Tunes by comparison but he’s just as uninteresting. His attempts to incorporate the Cajun speech into his dialogue are amusing & you will know that he’s at least awake in those scenes (oh, and the one’s where he’s kicking people). At least Wilford Brimley had his Quaker Oats & provides some moments as Chance’s Uncle Douvee, even if most of those moments are in an incomprehensible Cajun drawl (“Good whiskey make jackrabbit slap de bear!” Well…bye bye jackrabbit, then). However, the main thing that will irk Woo fans is that Hard Target lacks something in its hero that is readily apparent in Woo’s HK work: heart. In Hard Boiled & (especially) The Killer, the main characters were not only Supermen with guns but fully functioning, emotional characters. Van Damme’s infallible good guy may have worked in lesser efforts but it proves to be Hard Target’s biggest failing. When he encounters Fouchon for the final showdown, there’s little catharsis in seeing the baddie get his because the result is never in doubt, not even for a spilt second. Shame someone of the set didn’t realize Van Damme was lacking emotional pull, what with all of that screen time he had and all.

Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- Ted Raimi, Sam’s brother, is the guy on the street hassled by Elijah (Willie Carpenter).
- SVEN…Ole Thorsen is back at it again as Stephan, the killer with the goofy looking shirt that Chance ruins.

Body Count/Violence: 36. Normally, thirty six dead bodies in a Woo film are equal to “a good start” or “one hell of an opening five minutes”. There’s still enough craziness abounding, with a few pretty sweet gun battles & a good amount of bloody hits to every part of the anatomy. Add to that some stabbing, explosions, arrow shots (both regular & metal tipped), grenade attacks, ear cutting (a nod to QT’s Reservoir Dogs, though it’s cut from impact to only show the results), people set on fire, snake attacks (and blown off snake head) and Van Damme’s brawling and you got a party. The best kill in the flick (IMO) involves a surprised biker, JCVD’s shotgun & a gas can. You’re the amateur chemistry major, you figure it out! Much of the violence is shortened from the original cut, which accounts for some of the film’s choppy editing.

Sexuality/Nudity: There’s a topless woman on a paper flyer but its in black & white (well, black & pink actually) so that’s about it.

Language/Dialogue: A few strong profanities (several F words, some SOBs) but not overly bad.

How bad was it?:
Most of Hard Target’s reviews put it squarely in the middle, which is better response than most of Van Damme’s movies and worse than Woo’s HK works. Those that wondered what the big deal was with Woo did at least cite the studio interference, as it wasn’t exactly a largely kept secret. Even with Van Damme and some of the other uninspired casting choices (and by that, I mean Yancy Butler), many admitted Hard Target was the best Action film that year though (to most critics) it was like saying what AC/DC album was their favorite.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
After raping John Woo’s creative efforts for all their worth, Universal released Hard Target in America on 8/20/93. Made on a modest budget of $15 million, the film debuted in 2nd place behind the third week of The Fugitive (which still had three more weeks before it was knocked out of that spot) with $10.1 million. It took a little less than a month for it to drop out of the top 10 & it finished its run in the States with $32.6 million (and $41.6 million overseas, for a final take of $74.2 million). This made it the 49th top grossing movie of the year, which did nothing more than give Woo the stigma of failure in America for a few years. Despite the grand age of DVD & countless versions of several films on the market, Hard Target is still only available in retail in its 97 minute theatrical version. If you go to certain sites, you may be able to find the 100 minute Unrated, overseas cut or the 116 minute Director’s Cut if you dig a little deeper.

Film: **1/2/*****
Entertainment value: ****1/2/*****

Copyright 2009 The Action Mutant.

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