Hard Target

(John Woo, USA, 1993)


John Woo is one of the most inventive and inspiring directors currently at work in world cinema. Those who follow the amazing output of Hong Kong's movie industry have known this fact for years. Other pockets of our film culture – whose inhabitants are either resistant or simply never exposed to popular action-fantasy genres – are catching on less quickly. Anyone still shy about setting foot in a Chinatown cinema can, however, easily catch up with Woo's greatness on video with two of his best films, The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992).

Hard Target is Woo's long-awaited entry into the American filmmaking scene. In some respects it is a fairly inauspicious debut. The screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer does not present the director with especially rich or interesting material. The spicing of the man-hunt plot made famous by the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game with bold references to mercenaries and torturers in the political hot spots of the globe is in fact common to many routine action movies of the last decade.

As always in Woo it is the action scenes, and the men who command them, that matter. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Chance, an itinerant worker hired by Natasha (Yancy Butler from TV's Mann and Machine) to find her homeless father. Van Damme projects little character, but when he kicks, leaps through the air, and slides along the ground with all guns blazing, he is magnetic. Lance Henriksen is marvellously understated and credible as the sadistic villain Fouchon.

Woo is evidently a touch unfamiliar with the intricacies of American life, culture and vernacular. To compensate, he draws heavily on pertinent references in American pop culture, from the spooky border town streets of Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) to Creedence Clearwater Revival's rock classic "Born on the Bayou". Still, Woo's New Orleans is almost as much a racial melting pot as his beloved Hong Kong – complete with a Swedish villains and a Belgian super-hero.

Hard Target is not on a par with the masterpieces in Woo's career, but it is certainly as enjoyable as more minor works such as the comedy-thriller Once a Thief (1991). What Woo needs in his new production base is an epic of honour and bloodshed between men in the vein of Goodfellas (1990), The Deerhunter (1978) or Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

MORE Woo: Broken Arrow, Windtalkers

© Adrian Martin September 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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