John Woo’s HARD TARGET
John Woo’s 1993 furious action classic HARD TARGET marked his debut as an American filmmaker and was my introduction to his work. I remember reading about the film when it was released and my curiosity was stirred when star Jean Claude Van Damme referred to Woo as “the Martin Scorsese of Hong Kong”.
The opening of the film gets the action rolling fast as we witness a high stakes game of survival set up by the wealthy eccentric Emil Fouchon (Lance Henrikssen). Fouchon runs a secret underground organization that offers homeless people (usually war veterans) a chance to get back on their feet again, only it’s not in the usual good samaritan fashion. They are given $10,000 in cash which is placed in a money belt they wear and must race on foot to a chosen destination. If they can make it without being killed by the “clients” who have paid to hunt them with Fouchon and his crew, the money is theirs. The latest prey is a down n’ outer named Douglas Binder (screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer) who nearly succeeds in his attempt to reach the river.
Binder’s daughter Natasha (Yancy Butler) hasn’t heard from her dad in weeks and being worried she starts looking around New Orleans for him. She later learns that he was actually homeless and too ashamed to ask for help. On her search in the city she is assaulted by two men but is saved by the mysterious, mullet-haired Chance Boudreux (Jean Claude Van Damme) who, using his martial arts expertise, takes the punks out swiftly, with style. Afterwards, Natasha and Chance get to know each other and she explains her reason for being in town. Not a stranger to the streets himself, Chance offers his assistance in finding her father in return for money so he can pay his dues to start working again as a merchant seaman.
The more Chance snoops around and begins finding clues as to what really happened to Binder, he gains the unfortunate notice of Fouchon and his lieutenant, Pik Van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo) who handles all his dirty work. They realize that their only way of keeping their successful business going is to cut off any loose ends and that includes Chance, Natasha and others. With Fouchon and his men on their trail, Chance must use all his skills to keep them at bay while protecting Natasha. He decides the best plan is to hide out in the bayou where he grew up. His good old Uncle Douvee (Wilford Brimley) a Cajun (who has a very bad accent and loves making moonshine whiskey) comes to his aid upon his arrival. The firey finale, which is set at a Mardi Gras float warehouse is truly explosive with Fouchon, Pik and the other thugs taking on Chance, the one man cajun army.
Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Darkman) was one of the producers on the film and even though he didn’t direct, Hard Target oddly feels like a Raimi production in some ways, most notably the moments of screwball humor. His brother Ted even has a cameo as a New Orleans resident who reacts angrily after being asked by one of Fouchon’s targets for some help. There’s also a standout scene that has Chance actually punching a fake snake when it tries to bite Natasha. Whether or not Raimi had any influence on these things I’m not sure.
Hard Target is a highly stylized film and along with all the trademark Woo-ized slow motion shots, guns akimbo and explosions, the acting and comedy is just as heightened. This is essentially why I became an instant Woo fan. Van Damme had been a huge star from films like Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Lionheart and Death Warrant and this film continued his streak of extremely entertaining action cinema. His own good hearted tough guy persona paired with John Woo’s hyper-realistic visceral style was just a perfect match. Co-star Lance Henrikssen is superb as Fouchon, playing him about as over the top as he can be without it turning into a joke. He chews up every scene he’s in mostly fueled by his character’s constant rage at Chance’s meddling and the incompetent thugs that he’s employed to help him. Even when he’s playing the piano in his luxurious home, he does it with an extravagance and intensity.