Starring Jean Claude Van-Damme, Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, Wilford Brimley, Kasi Lemmons, Arnold Vosloo, Willie C. Carpenter

Directed by John Woo

To the seasoned viewer of early 90s action films there are only two things wrong with Hard Target. One, there are like twenty dudes trying to kill Van Damme at any given moment and Al Leong is not one of them. Two, the painfully obvious musical selection “Born on the Bayou”, which could have made any scene in this film infinitely more awesome, is not played until the end credits. Despite these two obvious flaws, the movie was a pleasant experience to return to since I had last viewed it over 15 years ago.

Hard Target is forever cemented in history as the film that brought John Woo to Hollywood. Language barriers as well as unfamiliarity with the Hollywood system were obvious concerns. The brass over at Universal Pictures were apparently shitting themselves so badly over letting John Woo take the reins of this film that they hired producer Sam Raimi to babysit the production. Woo was working in horrendously stifling conditions, being given only two months to shoot the film, and was relentlessly hounded by studio execs to go easy on the violence, which ironically is the very reason he became such a desired Hollywood import in the first place.

I think given the circumstances, Woo played it both safe and smart, choosing to basically toss in a potpourri mix of his Hong Kong repertoire while scaling back the action to milder, western standards. It’s a tightrope act that holds the film back from becoming anything substantial, yet keeps it interesting enough to keep you watching. You get all of your time-honored John Woo trademarks here: Pigeons flying around, graceful leaps through the air, dudes sliding on the ground while popping off dual-wielded pistols, and the ever-present “guys in a Mexican standoff while back to back against a wall” scene. All in all, it ain’t bad. The death of Arnold Vosloo’s character, in particular, is right up there with the best moments from Hard Boiled and The Killer.

This is something of an anomaly for both John Woo as well as JCVD. I don’t think any other Van Damme film featured nearly as much gunplay, and no other John Woo film from this period contains so many slo-mo jumpkicks. This film was made during what can be considered a fairly decent period of Van Damme’s career, one that would culminate with the legitimately awesome Timecop the following year. He seemed to lose steam beginning with Street Fighter before completely losing his shit in a sea of cocaine and spousal abuse, a lifestyle that later was mocked viciously by Van Damme himself in the excellent film, JCVD.

Hard Target is loosely based on the classic short story Surviving the Game by Ice-T The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, taking the premise of man hunting man for sport and transplanting it into a modern-day New Orleans setting. Casting Van Damme as a Cajun gypsy seems like an inspired explanation for his thick accent, which never really bothered me, but people just love to harp on.

The opening scene tries to establish the film as something like a modern-day spaghetti western. Van Damme, rocking a cowboy duster and an Eazy-E jherri-mullet, kicks the shit out of a bunch of would-be muggers in an almost deserted New Orleans street. The fight is pretty pedestrian, but does a good job of establishing his character, Chance Boudreaux, as a mysterious badass and even manages to include the requisite “break the guy’s arm over your shoulder” moment that is pretty much standard issue for these films.

In fact, Hard Target is simply chock-full of classic, absurd Van Damme shit. I can’t tell you how many shots there are of him performing vaulting somersaults over 10 foot tall walls of flame. But those are all dwarfed in scope by the scene where Jean-Claude stands on a motorcycle at top speed, crashing it into an oncoming vehicle full of bad guys, somehow managing to vault over the car at the last second before placing a well-aimed bullet at the wreckage, causing everything to explode. There is also a part where Lance Henriksen shoots a rattlesnake in the face, and that’s pretty badass too.

The film loses me for a moment when it introduces the character of Chance’s hillbilly uncle, Douvee, played by Wilford Brimley. Uncle Douvee is like a Mr. Miyagi figure, if Mr. Miyagi was French Cajun, alcoholic, and had no qualms whatsoever about shooting thugs in the throat with a bow and arrow. On second thought he’s actually nothing like Mr. Miyagi. And yes, you heard me right. Wilford fucking Brimley. Murdering guys. With a bow and arrow. I guess the thought of gentle, Quaker Oats-eating Wilford Brimley mowing down dudes with an assault rife was just too much for the general public to stomach, so having him impaling guys through the throat with a bow and arrow was much more in keeping with his grandfatherly image.

Lance Henriksen goes completely batshit crazy in his portrayal of Emil Fouchon, who pays homeless veterans to act as prey for elitist hunters who tire of bagging deer and elephants and shit. Emil is a real asshole, so devoid of anything resembling human qualities that his character takes on cartoon-like proportions as the film progresses. From the very beginning it’s clear to the viewer just how devious this man is because he is really good at playing intense classical music on the piano while looking angry. His character is one of the most over the top creations of 80s/90s action films, rivaled only by Terry Silver of Karate Kid III fame. I can’t tell you how many times this guy gets so purple in the face, cursing and spitting into the camera while bulging his carotid artery like a swelling poison dart frog. He’s simply insane.

The film’s biggest fault is the scene in which unlucky Vietnam vet Roper gets gunned down in the middle of a crowded street. I consider myself fairly forgiving in terms of implausibility in movies, but this scene was just ridiculous. First off, the man is bleeding from what is obviously a fatal gunshot wound of some sort, and not a single passer-by seems to notice. Secondly, Emil and his goons stroll into town and leisurely take their time lighting the poor guy up like a Christmas tree and retrieving money from his corpse in front of about fifty witnesses and somehow still manage to avoid raising the ire of the local police. For some reason we can track Osama Bin Laden down to the furthest corners of the earth, but we can’t catch Emil Fouchon, who apparently makes a career out of strolling through busy French Quarter streets, gunning down homeless people left and right like he’s playing Duck Hunt with a Nintendo zapper.

Besides that, it’s all gravy I guess. Hard Target is definitely a worthy candidate for reappraisal. Sure, there are better ways to blow a Saturday evening, but I doubt any of them involve ripping rattlesnakes apart with your teeth.