“Hunting season… is over.”
Justin’s rating: Eight slow-motion doves
Justin’s review: While we certainly had no shortage of B-level action movies propagating all over the 1980s and 1990s — usually with two-word generic titles like Death Wish or Painful Noogie and starring your Chuck Norrises or your Dolph Lundgrens– it would be a gross oversight on your part to head past Hard Target without giving it a serious look. That’s because Hard Target is actually an underrated gem of an action movie thanks to the fact that it was the western debut of director John Woo.
Woo, who had previously stunned eastern filmgoers with his masterpieces like Hard Boiled and The Killer, had a lot to prove to western filmgoers. Instead of handing him the reins of a major blockbuster out of the gate, Universal allowed him to helm a nice mid-range action flick — a decision that I think was perfect for him getting his legs over here. The end result is a movie that, while not perfect, has far more talent and skill going for it than its generic title suggests.
Liberally stealing from The Most Dangerous Game, Hard Target takes that hoary old “man hunting man is the greatest sport” story and at least tries to do it very well. Ironically, a year later in 1994, another film would come out based on the same source material: Surviving the Game with Ice-T (which is also worth a watch).
In this film, a steely eyed Lance Henrickson leads up an outfit that sells man-hunting expeditions in New Orleans to rich and depraved scum. One of the hunters really likes his bow, which gives Woo ample opportunity to show arrows in flight (harder to do that with bullets, I guess!). But when this group kills a homeless man who just so happens to be a veteran with a nosey sister, they end up drawing the attention and ire of no less than Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, who is the quintessential ’90s rebel with his shiny earring and greasy mullet. But he’s also got amazingly advanced martial arts skills, and so when the man-hunting expedition tries to bag a Brussels lion, they find themselves on the defensive for the first time. That’s always a fun thing to watch.
But forget the plot, because it’s all in service of John Woo’s action scene direction and Van Damme’s martial prowess. Coming from the current era where anyone who’s a one-man army has to fight faster than you can blink, it’s wonderfully refreshing to go across the spectrum to slow-motion combat where the coolest moves get two, maybe four different shots. Yes, there’s a certain air of self-importance here that’s hard to take completely seriously, but it’s surprisingly easy to get into the spirit of this.
I mean, the fights have impact. You feel every shot, every kick, every broken limb, and it’s a glorious bit of filmmaking for that. You’d be amazed how much a well-designed, cognizant, and visceral fight scene can take a mediocre movie and raise it up a few notches. (I recommend this Nerdwriter1 video that goes into depth about how Woo accomplishes this phenomenon.)
Also, you get a scene where Van Damme punches out a rattlesnake, which is well worth the price of admission.
Another strike in favor of Hard Target is that it chose well in picking Henrickson as a bad guy. His low, gravely voice is chilling when he wants to put menace into it, and boy does he want to here. There’s some actual effort to build him and his “dogs” up as a villains so that by the time the movie’s waging war, you really want to see them all put down. Not many action movies give its foes enough screen time and development, which makes you appreciate the ones that do.
So yeah, while you can see John Woo struggling to find the right balance between eastern and western sensibilities, he still managed to deliver a stone-cold classic that might well be Van Damme’s best film ever. Hard Target’s built up a nice cult reputation over the years, and we’re glad to lend our voices to recommending a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and human hunting.