Although 1993's "Hard Target" is regarded as a Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle, the feature is more interesting when approached as the American filmmaking debut for director John Woo. Lured to the states by co-producer Sam Raimi, Woo was a monumental get, with his work on Hong Kong masterpieces such as "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled" cementing his reputation as unique architect of blistering action sequences, often executed with an emotional foundation that preserves performances and widens cinematic scope. The transition wasn't easy, with Woo's exaggerated sensibilities alien to Hollywood's shoot-em-up formula, but the marriage resulted in an especially funky offspring. "Hard Target" isn't a convincing drama, but this loose update of the 1924 short story, "The Most Dangerous Game," is transformed into a celebration of carnage and bruising stunt work, reworking western traditions to fit Van Damme's rise as a big screen hero. It's a berserk picture slathered in absurdity, but if one can find the rhythm of its outrageousness, "Hard Target" rises to become the most satisfying entry in Van Damme's rise to glory during the early 1990s, smartly using the star's limited vocabulary and limitless flexibility to create one of the finest B-movies of the decade.
Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) is a wealthy, cultured businessman who specializes in organizing hunting expeditions where the targets are combat veterans, men who can potentially survive a chase lead by curious sickos paying a fee to try out murder. Assisted by henchman Pik Van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo), Emil has chosen New Orleans as his latest playground, with the city's homeless population providing plenty of volunteers. One of these fallen men is missing, with daughter Natasha (Yancy Butler) setting out to find him, requiring aid from homeless vet Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a kindly soul in need of money to pay union dues. With the local police on strike, Chance and Natasha scour the city for leads, questioning unsavory types with ties to Emil. When Natasha's father turns up dead, Chance is marked for death, soon on the run from Emil, Pik, and their squad of assassins, requiring assistance from his moonshine-swilling relative, Uncle Douvee (Wilford Brimley).
No longer working in his homeland, Woo encounters a rough transition to Hollywood moviemaking. Gone is tonal smoothness and sincerity, allowing the helmer to explore the true price of violence as he stages some of the most chaotic and balletic action scenes in film history. "Hard Target" is chunkier, more of a blunt object that travels into the bowels of New Orleans, a lawless land where life is cheap and greasy mullets are all the rage. While faced with a language barrier and general uncertainty when dealing with an American production, Woo retains outstanding confidence with his violent vision, taking cues worked into the fabric of the writing (credited to Chuck Pfarrer, who also plays Natasha's father), transforming the effort into a western, complete with a character named Van Cleaf (a loving ode to Lee Van Cleef) and a general Eastwoodian aura around Chance. Instead of brandishing a six-gun, the lovable transient offers a kick-happy leg (its slo-mo reveal is one of many stand-up-and-shout moments in the picture) and a cool, silent demeanor, offering Natasha safe passage through an underworld of pornographers and hitmen, dedicated to an askew idea of street justice. Chance is the Man with the Funny Name, and his all-denim outfit, party-in-the-back hair, and iffy way with a quip makes him instantly likable, with Woo amplifying the character's heroism any chance he gets.
If you're looking for subtlety, avoid "Hard Target," which is firmly rooted in a white hat/black hat mentality, depicting Emil as a growling, unforgiving organizer of death who also loves the piano and possibly his right-hand man, Pik. Henriksen is fantastic in the role, playing up the death dealer's demonic presence, creating a precise antagonist for Chance to topple. Woo doesn't deal in ambiguity, he orders up action, and the movie is loaded with insane displays of gunfire and violent encounters, underlined by Woo's wonderful choreography, which plays into screen anarchy yet retains operatic appeal. Chance doesn't simply dispatch his enemies, he flips through the air, rides a motorcycle like a surfboard, and carries on a relationship with the local pigeons, who aid him during the mystery. It's bonkers, but the good kind of bonkers, finding Woo committing to illogic with every fiber of his being, creating a vicious fantasy that carries through graveyards, swampland (Chance, saving Natasha from a snake, promptly punches it unconscious), freeways, and climaxes inside a Mardi Gras float warehouse. Any other director would've buried "Hard Target" in winks. Woo salutes the audience in every frame.
Van Damme's never been much of an actor, and "Hard Target" hardly challenges the man, finding Chance more of an action figure than a character. Sure, he cries, has firm opinions on the quality of the local gumbo, and pursues a weirdly flirty relationship with Natasha, but Chance is here as a human weapon, smashing through aggressors with pure physicality and a way with weapons. In terms of iconic screen imagery, "Hard Target" delivers some primo Van Damme-isms, with terrific poses and quaking close-ups. And for extra fun, Brimley is a hoot as Chance's sauced uncle, finding the actor dodging fireballs on horseback and submitting a think Cajun accent, adding to the colorful atmosphere of Woo's bayou carnival.
The AVC encoded image (1.85:1 aspect ratio) presentation doesn't appear to be a recent scan from Universal, but as their catalog releases go, "Hard Target" emerges relatively unscathed. Some filtering is present to lend the image a video-like appearance, but detail isn't smoothed out, still managing to capture location particulars and skin textures, with beads of sweat and subtle body trauma open for inspection. Also fun to watch for are the stuntmen, with their bad wigs easier to spot in HD. Colors run a tad hot, but nothing offensive, holding natural hues with costuming and New Orleans locations, and skintones are adequate. Blacks lose some delineation with dark outfits, but distances are sustained. No overt print damage was detected.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix carries expected punch to detail the numerous actions scenes of the movie. Surrounds are utilized quite well, with encouraging panning effects for motorcycle activity and helicopter arrivals, while explosions also feel out circular movement. Dialogue isn't deep but it remains crisp and open for inspection, navigating accents and more hectic encounters. Low-end receives a workout, and while it's more of a shallow rumble, heaviness is felt during firebombs and shootouts. Scoring maintains authority, supporting without steamrolling the rest of the elements, and soundtrack selections are clean. Bayou and citywide atmospherics are explored to satisfaction.
Most Van Damme fans consider 1994's "Timecop" to be the Muscles from Brussles's best movie. The Peter Hyams picture pushed the star to conjure emotions, and a heftier budget permitted a glossier effort. "Timecop" is entertaining, but "Hard Target" is truly Van Damme's shining moment of screen gallantry, riding Woo's wave of carnage with a smirk and boot-to-the-face, making for an amusing eye to this outrageous cinematic hurricane.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment is bringing Jean-Claude Van Damme's Lionheart (1990), Hard Target (1993), Street Fighter (1994), Sudden Death (1995) and The Quest (1996) to Blu-ray in a 5-Movie Action Pack. (Lionheart, Hard Target and Sudden Death are making ...