After decades of acclaim as one of the most respected action filmmakers in Asia, John Woo would make the leap to Hollywood, and more specifically to The Big Easy, with 1993’s “Hard Target.” Woo’s trademark use of slow motion, balletic gunplay, and immaculately placed doves would gel perfectly with the martial arts skills and poker-faced charisma of his leading man, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the result is a gleefully over-the-top, action-packed fight for survival that could only be Born on the Bayou!
Jean-Claude Van Damme steps into the lead as ex-Marine Chance Boudreaux, who finds himself alternately assisting and protecting a young woman named Natasha, played by Yancy Butler, from a troupe of sadistic hunters who have selected man as their prey. Lance Henriksen portrays the film’s vicious antagonist Emil Fouchon, who with the aid of his equally sadistic right-hand man Pik Van Cleef, played by Arnold Vosloo in his pre-Imhotep days, turns the city of New Orleans into an urban hunting ground for the highest bidder. Kasi Lemmons portrays New Orleans police detective May Mitchell, while Willie C. Carpenter plays Chance’s close friend and fellow veteran, Elijah Roper. Wilford Brimley also injects a touch of dry humor in the role of Chance’s Uncle Douvee, who becomes his and Natasha’s ally in their battle with Fouchon’s posse.
After a sudden break in contact with her father, Natasha arrives in the city of New Orleans to file a missing person’s report, which is complicated by the fact that her father had recently found himself homeless.
After being rescued from a gang of thugs by homeless ex-Marine Chance Boudreaux, Natasha enlists his help in locating her father, and with the help of local detective May Mitchell, their investigation uncovers that Natasha’s father was murdered. As the group tries to pin down the culprit, they soon discover that Natasha’s father was killed by the gang of Emil Fouchon, who pulls homeless veterans off the street with the offer of a $10,000 reward if they survive being hunted by his elite clientele. And before long, Chance and Natasha soon find themselves the targets of Fouchon’s next hunt.
When it comes to over-the-top ballistic action – “Heroic Bloodshed”, as Rick Baker so aptly termed it – there is only one John Woo. We fans of Asian cinema knew that when he made the trek across the Pacific for “Hard Target” in 1993, but for the average moviegoer, seeing his heroes and villains blast off at one another in the most ridiculously graceful way imaginable was simply inconceivable before he made his mark on Hollywood.
Woo would continue to outdo himself in his stateside career with 1996’s “Broken Arrow”, the 1997 John Travolta-Nicolas Cage kabuki play of insanity that is “Face/Off”, and 2000’s “Mission Impossible 2”, which is still far and away the best instalment of that particular series (although “Mission Impossible: Fallout” certainly looks like a blast!) Woo’s outlandish style and the New Orleans setting of “Hard Target” also fit its leading man, Jean-Claude Van Damme, like a glove.
We’re first introduced to Chance Boudreaux in his one-man rescue of Natasha from a gang of thugs after her arrival in New Orleans, and before the fists even start flying, we can tell this guy is just made of cool, sweeping his knee-length coat aside as he prepares to slam his foot into these dudes’ faces like a Cajun Billy Jack. Over twenty years later, it’s still one of the best intros a Van Damme character has ever seen.
To the extent that John Woo can ever be accused of exercising restraint, “Hard Target” keeps the action thereafter in check as Chance and Natasha continue their investigation into her father’s disappearance, and watching it today, it’s disturbing just how far it was ahead of its time on this issue of homeless veterans. Nevertheless, the entire latter half of the film plays like one near-continuous, explosion-filled action sequence, in which Chance, riding the top of a speeding motorcycle like a surfboard straight into a Fouchon-henchman’s oncoming car is somehow NOT the biggest mic-drop moment of the entire film.
The finale in an abandoned warehouse in the midst of the Bayou is one John Woo money shot after another, from our hero somersaulting through the air before firing off at his enemies, to firing off an upside down Beretta before putting his adversary down with one of the most memorable Van Damme helicopter kicks ever put to film – all accompanied by plenty customary slo-mo and dove shots. For the finale of his freshman Hollywood affair, it’s John Woo at his John Woo-iest and does not disappoint!
Whether you come at it as a fan of John Woo or Van Damme, “Hard Target” is a sublime, ridiculously fun team-up of action legends. Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo make hugely entertaining villains, with the latter especially, eagerly warming up for “The Mummy” years in advance. Woo’s expertise with gun fu meshes marvellously with Van Damme’s martial arts skills, and two decades hence, leaves your mind reeling at what “John Wick 4” would look like if John Woo were given a shot at it. Oh, one can dream!
- Already a fan of John Woo, Jean-Claude Van Damme met with Woo in Hong Kong during the film’s pre-production phase. Woo later raised the amount of action in the film, as he knew Van Damme was up for it.
- Twenty-three years after the film’s debut, a sequel, “Hard Target 2”, was released starring Scott Adkins. This marks just one of several films where Scott either appears alongside Van Damme, is appearing in a sequel to one of his earlier films, or both, including “The Shepherd: Border Patrol”, “Assassination Games”, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”, and “The Expendables 2”.
- In directing the film, John Woo started a trend of Hong Kong directors making their English-language debut in directing a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme, with Tsui Hark directing “Double Team”, and later “Knock Off”, and Ringo Lam directing “Maximum Risk”, and subsequently “Replicant” and “In Hell”.
- Due to John Woo’s at-the-time limited English, Universal Pictures sent in Sam Raimi to oversee the production and step in as director if it became necessary. However, Raimi was always confident in Woo, stating, “Woo at 70% is still going to blow away most American action directors working at 100%”
- John Woo initially turned down the chance to direct the movie “Face/Off”, having little interest in the film’s science fiction premise, though he ultimately would change his mind and direct the film for its subsequent release in 1997.
Soundtrack: “Born on the Bayou” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- “So, how does it feel to be hunted?” – Chance (to Fouchon, during the final battle.)
- “My mamma took one.” – Chance (explaining to Natasha how he got his name.)
- “Now this, this real catastrophe! This real bad!” – Uncle Douvee (after an arrow pierces his liquor flask.)
Film Rating: 8/10
25 years on, do you think this JCVD classic looks good? Which other martial arts stars would you like to see John Woo work with? Let us know in the comments below, join in the conversation and share this on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (Want more Dammage? Then check out our other movie reviews!)
There’s also a cut with added scenes. The finale has a few action beats cut out and a love scene between Van Damme and Yancy Butler added in.