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Review Hard Target (1993): A John Woo classic? Of course it is!

genre: action, adventure, heroic bloodshed

For years I considered Hard Target to be an exceptional action film but does it still stand up today?

I do feel I have to explain and defend older me into liking Hard Target for so long. At the time it did make a lasting impression and to me Jean Claude Van Damme and John Woo seemed like a golden combination. In the Eighties and Nineties Van Damme could do no wrong. Most of the movies he made in those years were quite good. Hard Target when it comes to action certainly will warm the hearts of fans who love the genre. John Woo infuses his beloved style as much as he can but he is clearly handicapped. Most of the action is stylish and filmed in slow motion. Yet it never reaches the heights of his previous films like Hard Boiled and The Killer. In those films the action was heavily stylized but intense and hardcore. It was relentless but beautiful at the same time. Here the intensity is missing and I am afraid this is in large part because of Jean Claude Van Damme. I have to give him credit for doing his best to be a serious character. Only he undermines himself the minute he uses his trademark moves. It does not make sense to first unload your gun into a bad guy and then kick him a few time and then shoot again. Considering the fact you are surrounded by multiple opponents would it not be more prudent to either shoot or kick instead of wasting bullets and energy. Just saying. Granted in all of John Woo's films they never seem to run out of ammo or stamina which never bothered me before until I saw Van Damme do his helicopter kick in combination with shooting his gun. It looked silly. Beyond silly. It simply does not make sense. And you know if it was done fast enough I might have bought it. Instead the already pretty slow action becomes more slowed down. Instantly killing of whatever tension or thrills you wanted to create. I also think that Hard Target is a prime example in showing that not everyone can pick up two guns and become a god like Chow Yun-Fat. Chow Yun- Fat did add to his persona significantly. Through his expressions and actions you could tell that even when he owned his opponents his life was in danger constantly. With Van Damme all of that is gone. He simply lacks the acting chops to show that it is not as easy as it seems. But it's not entirely his fault. 

The villains in this film also are highly incompetent and not as deadly as you would hope. Lance Henriksen doesn't belong or does not want to be there but he is hamming it up (intentionally if I have to guess) even though he is still one of the most interesting characters. Sad part is that he does not get to do much other than to yell and grunt. For whatever reason he is not that bright either. His favourite weapon is a gun he has to load up after each shot. Of course maybe they were trying to emphasize that he can be a good sport. But why? We need a ruthless and fearless villain who doesn't care about rules and morals. Arnold Vosloo is taking his role more seriously and it is a shame he is so underused. I would have loved to see him battle it out with Van Damme a little more spectacularly than he did. He certainly was more the villain type then Henriksen was. Another problem with Hard Target is the fact that it takes almost 40 minutes to get going. And these minutes only function to set up the second part. Yancy Butler also is not allowed to do much other then play the damsel in distress throughout the film even putting herself right in the middle of danger shortly after Chance (Van Damme) had made sure she was out of the way. Seriously she looked and acted like she was scared all the time. Would a person who is as scared as she was look up danger or run from it? And what did she think she would achieve? Exactly she is used by main villain for one last stand off. *Sigh.*

Action wise Hard Target still can be considered good but then you still will have to tolerate and endure some torture for an hour or so. (I can't believe I used to be able to watch this over and over again!) 

I wondered what would have happened if John Woo was allowed to make the movie he wanted to? I read he wanted to make a western with Kurt Russel. Surely it would have been the ultimate tribute to Sam Peckinpah and one hell of an action flick. Instead we end up with Van Damme as a kicking Cajun who occasionally shoots and flirts with pigeons. Thanks Hollywood!

Edit 10-03-2019:
So I popped in Hard Target (Blu-ray) on a whim and found myself enjoying the film from start to finish. I know I said that the action doesn't feel that intense. Perhaps I need to put some nuance to that comment. If you allow Woo to tell his story he does manage to intensify the action scenes with some social critique. Veterans ending up on the streets and then without hesitance are being treated like they are nothing. It's one of the things in our society I don't understand. In the film it's implied these people have a choice while often this is not the case. Some people fall in between the cracks of bureaucratic measures. And once in it's a hell to get out. But they try their hardest to earn what they can falling victims who are out to prey on them. This probably is why John Woo takes it time to tell this since it is incredibly cathartic to see Boudreaux (Van Damme) deal with the filthy and disgusting villains.

Edit 14/03/2021:
Apparently next to studio interference concerning the violence and thematic subjects. Jean-Claude Van Damme was the one who wanted to put his stamp on it. He was being a diva and defiant all the way. This would explain why you see him showing off his famous moves in combination with gun play. John Woo also had much more respect for Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo since they obviously are superior actors to Van Damme. Hence he allowed them to do their own thing which helped improve the film enormously. In hindsight it does look like Henriksen deliberately plays a flawed character perhaps projecting Van Damme's ego pointing out the absurdity. In that regard we should praise him.

In hindsight I think I have been a little too harsh on Hard Target even to a point by saying it's superior to Face/Off.

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