Jean-Claude Van Damme Kicks Into High Gear in John Woo’s New Orleans Actioner



Why didn’t anyone tell me that Hard Target is so much fun??  Sure, it stars Jean-Claude Van Damme in his A-list heyday, and yes, it’s one of the legendary John Woo’s early Hollywood efforts… but why have some of us collectively swallowed the assumption that both of those are negatives? 

Woo’s melodramatic ballets of bullets and overwrought dove symbolism now register as work that’s quickly becoming encrusted in amber.  As ‘80s steroid-y action gave way to the swifter martial arts action popular in the ‘90s, the director- so revered in his native Hong Kong- was lured, at long last, to the states.  Here, Woo did not yield his best work (for that, see his native masterworks Hard BoiledThe Killer, and A Better Tomorrow), but he did manage to give the genre a much-needed jolt.  Nevertheless, as revelatory as Woo’s meticulous cool was for American eyes at the time, it’s now a part of yet another an era gone by.  

But doggonit, when you sit down to take in a John Woo picture, such exquisite flair should be exactly what you want.  At his best, it’s that exact style of romanticized graphic novel-esque fisticuffs and firearms that the man is a master of.  For a time, his aesthetic dominated action movies all around the globe.  Hard Target, his American debut, looks and feels in every sense like “a John Woo movie”.  Going forward in Hollywood, this would so often not altogether be the case.  (See: Broken ArrowMission: Impossible IIWindtalkers, and the sleepy sci-fi, Paycheck).

As for Van Damme, the so-called “Muscles from Brussels”- he’s admittedly barely an actor here, but fortunately this movie does not require any deep emoting on his part.  When he windmill kicks a guy in the head in slow motion, it’s a moment that is uniquely his.  Hard Target, as humble as it reads in terms of budget and scope (by large Hollywood studio standards, anyhow), has such grandiosity to spare.  It just so happened that Van Damme’s ascension overlapped with Woo’s arrival in the states, allowing their paths to cross via the maneuvering of one of the film’s executive producers, Sam Raimi. (Among others).  The result is Hard Target– nothing more, and absolutely nothing less- than a fully rollicking, wildly entertaining action movie to watch on a weekend afternoon.

Hard Target, though, has so much more.  The film makes bold, excellent use of its well-chosen New Orleans setting.  With the quick establishment that the local police are currently on strike, a crew of lethal murderous sickos are even more emboldened.  Their literal game is class warfare, the well-armed rich hunting the desperate and forgotten homeless in the urban open, for pure sport.  As action film historians Brandon Bentley and Mike Leeder say in their recently recorded audio commentary track, it’s The Most Dangerous Game in New Orleans.  But for the hunted downtrodden of the city, there’s never been anything easy about The Big Easy.

As is the case with any movie, great casting is at the heart of its success.  Hard Target is no different.  While the film is undeniably a Van-Damme vehicle through and through, it does take the star in some different directions within the action genre.  (Namely, Woo’s directions).  Woo, in his self-acknowledged talent for making his heroes look very cool, embraces the notion that flailing, whipping long hair reads extra dynamically in slow motion.  (Also, it’s all the better to obscure a stunt double’s face).  Van Damme, playing an unemployed combat-trained badass with a heart of gold, sports short-in-the-front/permed-in-the-back flying locks that have not aged well on screen.  In her new video interview (included as a bonus feature), female lead Yancy Butler claims that Van Damme’s mullet was extensions; the historians on the commentary say it was real.  This is one point of controversy that Kino Lorber’s new special edition leaves unsorted.

Yancy Butler (TV’s Witchblade) is perfectly fine in her semi-damsel role, recruiting Van Damme to help her discover the fate of her missing father.  The father’s late-night murder at the hands of the ruthless hunters is the film’s bravura opening sequence.  Rife with oil can explosions and great close-ups of spinning arrows zipping through the air, Hard Target gets off to an appropriately threatening start.  (It’s a wonder how vicious arrows can look when being made to spin by an assumed off-frame cordless drill).  Firing the arrows is a gleefully bloodthirsty Arnold Vosloo (The Mummy in 1999’s The Mummy).  Vosloo’s glorified henchman is at the beck and call of villainous ringleader Lance Henriksen (Aliens).  In an era of wildly over-the-top action movie bad guys, Henriksen’s exasperated scenery chewing is among the most enjoyable.  Aiding the heroes against him are a jovially lethal Wilford Brimley as Van Damme’s swamp-bound Cajun uncle, and Kasi Lemmons as a valiant detective.

KL Studio Classics’ new special edition of this new 4K restoration of the unrated international cut (from a 4K scan of the original camera negative) is rendered all the more special by the company’s simultaneous release of the film on both 4K and Blu-ray disc formats.  (I was only granted access to the Blu-ray edition, which looks very satisfyingly early ‘90s, and sounds fantastic).  Four new brief (ten minute-plus) video interviews were produced for this release, all of them worthwhile.  Butler gives a particularly enthusiastic interview, while Woo comes off as honest and gracious.  Lance Henriksen recalls all sorts of fun details about the shoot, which is impressive, considering that he’s been in roughly 4000 movies and must be at least 80 years old.  Finally, stunt coordinator Billy Burton gives a good account of his work on the production, coming off as equal parts blusterer and big boss man.  

Finally, there’s the audio commentary.  Brandon Bentley and Mike Leeder (who also works in Asian casting and occasionally acts) have a great rapport, zig-zagging their way in out of numerous fascinating rabbit holes as they guide us through Hard Target scene by scene.  (We even learn things completely unrelated to Hard Target; for example, Shang-Chi is full of CGI facial replacement).  There’s much talk of numerous alternate cuts of Hard Target that have apparently been floating around for decades.  (A rough workprint cut, John Woo’s director’s cut, the unrated international cut that we have here, and the truncated U.S. theatrical release- none of which contain an oft-discussed inexplicable sex scene. Butler recalls that dropped scene being lit with some 300 candles).  If there’s a disappointment in this release for fans, the omission of all other cuts would likely be it.  For me, though, simply having this opportunity to finally catch up with this absolute blast of a New Orleans actioner hits the target, right in the bullseye.