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‘Hard Target’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 20, 1993


John Woo
Jean-Claude Van Damme;
Lance Henriksen;
Yancy Butler;
Wilford Brimley;
Arnold Vosloo;
Kasi Lemmons
Under 17 restricted

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The only thing wrong with John Woo's American debut, "Hard Target," is that it's too American and not enough Woo.

Despite a string of critically acclaimed foreign action films, including "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled," the Hong Kong-based director has run into a Hollywood system that wants to like him but refuses to trust him. At home Woo writes his scripts, controls his editing, imposes his imagination. Here, he's forced to hire Jean-Claude Van Damme and it's pretty much downhill from there. Woo, a master of stylized violence and explosive action, has had to buy into America's fascination with explosive effects and reaction. Something gets lost in the transition.

Van Damme's last film, "Nowhere to Run," was a dumbed-down update of the classic western "Shane." This time, the original source material is "The Most Dangerous Game," a Richard Connell story first adapted to the big screen in 1932 under that name, recycled as "A Game of Death" in 1945 and as "Run for the Sun" in 1956, and exploited under various titles by dozens of television series over the years.

The original premise: A crazed hunter lures guests to a remote island and makes a game of hunting a potentially dangerous adversary -- man! The latest variation has a group of rich contract hunters, led by the sadistic Emil Fouchon (all-purpose villain Lance Henriksen), preying on solitary homeless veterans in the urban jungle of New Orleans.

Because of a police strike, the hunters operate with impunity. But New Orleans is really just a pit stop. "Rio, Yugoslavia ... there's always some unhappy little corner of the planet where we can ply our trade," Fouchon tells his sadistic South African helpmate Pik Van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo). They offer vets $10,000 if they can elude their hunters and reach the river.

Things go well until Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler of television's "Mann and Machine" and "South Beach") turns up looking to reconnect with her estranged father, who has, unfortunately, just become the hunting party's latest trophy. Coming to her aid, tres reluctantly: Monsieur Van Damme as Chance Boudreaux, a merchant seaman down on his luck and unconcerned with pronunciation (the Belgian accent is explained away zees time by the proximity of Cajun country). His first words, to a waitress after breakfast, are "za coffe was tolable" (terrible or tolerable: vous make the call).

Of course, Van Damme is an easy target and he doesn't camouflage his shortcomings very well. In fact, he seems to treat Woo's film as a fashion shoot, forever posturing and pouting like Fabio between kicks and punches. Woo is famous for the stylization in his films, but here it's almost as if he watched too much MTV between takes. On one occasion, the combination of bluesy acoustic guitar, slo-mo cinematography and a jeans-clad Van Damme turns "Hard Target" into a Levi's 501 Jeans commercial.

Woo is best known for ultra-violent over-the-top shootouts that are climactic no matter how many times they occur. In a film that is much too talky (given Van Damme's dubious dialogue and Butler's raspy vacuousness), there are only three major confrontations and none matches Woo's best work -- it's the difference between a Woo ballet and a Van Damme workout.

After a chase in the wilds of the Bayou ("a home game for us, an away for them," says Wilford Brimley as Chance's crafty Cajun Uncle Douvee), everybody ends up at a warehouse for old Mardi Gras floats, a typically exaggerated Woo setting that is wasted as mere backdrop for a lot of shooting and martial artistry. For some reason, everybody seems to get shot in the groin first -- and while that's not particularly efficient, it's typical of the sadistic undercurrent we've come to expect from Van Damme.

Action fans had every reason to anticipate Woo's American debut, but it's a disappointing affair that can probably be traced to seven producers and Hollywood's traditional inability to accommodate auteurs. Maybe next time, they'll just let Woo alone.

"Hard Target" is rated R and contains considerable violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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