Director: John Woo
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, Arnold Vosloo
Plot: Dangerous criminal (Henriksen) makes his money by allowing wealthy businessmen to unwind by hunting and murdering homeless people for sport. However, soon they find the Muscles from Brussels investigating the operation.
John Woo is an interesting director. Some might call him the lord of action movies, but there is a certain camp and knowingly bad vibe to them. With Hard Target, not only do we have John Woo, but Jean-Claude Van Damme, who rivals Schwarzenegger when it comes to terrible, yet inexplicably good action. As a result, Hard Target ticks every box for a guilty pleasure.
There is something very honest about this movie. Watching it, there is a sense that it was made on a very low budget. Sure, the camerawork feels dated, but modern action fans might feel a little let-down after being brought up on the Michael Bay lavishly expensive explosion-fests. Even action movies with a low budget have gone down the route of the ‘Robert Rodriguez’ and mocked themselves as a cheap thrill. John Woo simply makes the action he wants to make. The story is serviceable, but let down by cheap dialogue. The set-pieces hang on slow motion shots of Jean-Claude Van Damme doing his thing. Nothing about this movie will hang in your memory for too long. But there is something very safe about watching this movie. John Woo and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s names on the DVD cover provide a very reliable tone. This movie won’t require much attention, but it won’t skimp on the action. In fact, this is incredible action. The finale is terrifically filmed and delivers everything you want from a Friday night action. This could even be described as one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best, simply because it personifies the experience of a Jean-Claude Van Damme so clearly.
John Woo also always has good villains. Knowing that Jean-Claude Van Damme can bring the action, but will drop the ball on the acting, he has to turn to other avenues to add credibility to his characters. Lance Henriksen is the perfect man to get on the phone. Henriksen is a very consistent bad guy (or actor in general). There is no doubt he is the bad guy here, turning homeless people into meat, simply because he knows that he can get away with killing them. He preys on the weak to make a profit. Henriksen is such a great bad guy and that’s all we ask for from this material. A character that we want to see killed in as gruesome a way as possible, yet a villain that we can have fun with too. We enjoy his scenes. Arnold Vosloo is a great henchman too. I have always loved Vosloo as an actor, just because there is something cool, yet eerie about him. Most people know him as the eponymous character of the Mummy, but it is nice to see him here as a more grounded bad guy. He still has fun with the role and he is a great actor to watch. Maybe that is another reason I like this film as much as I do; everyone here seems to really enjoy making it, which for me, is something that has always attracted me to the cinema.
I do understand that there are flaws with this movie. Glaring ones, in fact. The biggest is Yancy Butler, who has got to be up there with one of the worst female sidekicks in action movies. Butler doesn’t come across as that great an actress, although her only job is to stand there, simpering. Feminists will cringe, as she follows Van Damme’s lead around, waiting for the compulsory love story to kick in. This is perhaps something to do with this being a Van Damme film and male viewers want their idealised hero figure to bag the girl at the end of the day. Still, as someone who has watched far too many Van Dammes, there have been far meatier women in movies. Yancy Butler is little more than a pretty narrative device and one of the common action movie traits of the time that has yet to be stamped out. There is also a scene near the end, where Van Damme teams up with his uncle in the woods. This allows John Woo to injecgt some slapstick comedy into the mix. It is silly humour and nearly throws everything I love about this movie out the window. However, if you try to look past these flaws and focus on the action, Hard Target is a roaring success.
Final Verdict: I would call this a guilty pleasure, but I am not feeling too guilty about it. One of Van Damme’s best and a comfortable action for those who like their fighting films.