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‘Hard Target’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 20, 1993

 


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


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Bikers, bouncers, post-apocalyptic bullies from hell -- it doesn't matter who comes at Jean-Claude Van Damme. He makes human rubble out of all of them. It's in his contract. In "Hard Target," an action picture set in Louisiana, he faces bloodlust-broker Lance Henriksen, psychotic South African sidekick Arnold Vosloo, and a medium-sized collection of henchmen and good old boys. In fighting terms, it's a piece of cake.

But there's a much more ethereal opponent to be contended with -- a familiar foe from previous movies. The harder Van Damme tries (and boy, does he try in this movie), the more elusive it becomes. Folks, we're talking about the acting specter and, before its intimidating maw, Jean-Claude stiffens and keels over.

"Hard Target," patterned loosely on Richard Connell's famous short story "The Most Dangerous Game," is about ruthless businessman Henriksen's high-stakes, big-money pastime for sadistic businessmen. For half a million, the rich (accompanied by Henriksen's goons) can hunt human quarry -- homeless individuals with military backgrounds and no family ties. At the end of the game, the bodies are disposed of, and Henriksen's looking once again for a few good men. Merchant sailor Van Damme tangles with these folks when forlorn daughter Yancy Butler hires him to locate her missing father. Naturally, the father's a recent hunting victim, and naturally, Van Damme finds himself similarly caught in the cross hairs.

In a genre full of such Academy Award contenders as Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal, acting comes second to roundhouse kicking. But Van Damme is clearly determined to change that. To probe the soul of his character (laconic drifter capable of kicking people), he has grown his hair long, curled it and packed it with gel. He has also adopted an earring and let his stubble grow. De Niro dreams of commitment like this. Then there's Van Damme's presence. At the beginning of the movie, distraught Butler -- carrying a lot of money -- finds herself in a dangerous street, surrounded by New Orleans punks. Van Damme arrives just in time to bust heads and save the day. Surveying his fallen, groaning foes, he quips in that inimitable Belgian accent, "You know, izza sham. Dis used to be such a nass part of town."

When Van Damme isn't duking it out with the English language, scriptwriter Chuck Pfarrer is filling Henriksen's mouth with villainous pseudo-profundities. Even in a second-rate action picture like this, and despite Henriksen's commendable efforts, they're painful to listen to. "It has always been the privilege of the few to hunt the many," he intones philosophically, describing his recreational enterprise. "You paid us a half a million to find out if you're alive or dead," he tells a client who balks at delivering the coup de grace to his appointed victim.

The movie marks the American debut of Hong Kong director John Woo, well known to cognoscenti for his cultish, cinematic, violent spectacles. But Woo's creative presence is practically stifled. There are some flashes of his deliriously wild style -- a slow-motion moment here, a well-chosen freeze-frame there. He also introduces American audiences to his taste for unique motorcycle stunts and very, very loud car explosions. But these Wooisms are disappointingly minimal. Essentially, "Hard Target" is a risk-averse Van Damme vehicle, steered by many hands, and set on tracks leading directly to the delivery entrances of the country's video stores. Woo isn't the driver by any means. He's just a VIP passenger along for the ride.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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