Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yancy Butler, Lance Henrickson, Arnold Vosloo, Wilford Brimley, Kasi Lemmons
Rated R for A Great Amount of Strong Violence, and for Language
"Hard Target" opens with a man being relentlessly pursued by a group of men. They're heavily armed, he is defenseless. Slowly but surely, they run him down. They savor every shot, every look of terror and desperation on his face, before they finally put him out of his misery. As sick as this scene is, it's a solid way to start the movie. If only the film had stayed on that level.
Nat Binder (Butler) has just arrived in New Orleans looking for her father. She hasn't seen him in years, but they kept in touch. When the letters stopped coming, she came looking. The police are no help, so she enlists the help of Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), the man with the ugly mullet who came to her rescue when she was mugged. The body of Nat's father is found soon after, and while the police claim it was a fire, Chance isn't convinced. When he goes sniffing around the crime scene, he finds evidence of murder. Meanwhile, the killers, Emil Fouchon (Henrikson) and Pik Van Cleef (Vosloo), learn that Chance is on their trail, they take steps to stop him for good. Soon, Chance and Nat become embroiled in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a group of killers wielding impressive firepower and are eager to use it.
In essence, this is a hyperviolent, dumbed down version of "The Most Dangerous Game," where a man who is bored and has too much money decides to hunt human prey. There's no reason this couldn't have been made into a great action movie. The plot essentially writes itself. Unfortunately, they used the first draft and hired Jean-Claude Van Damme and Yancy Butler, neither of whom are known for their thespian abilities, to star.
Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is known for two things: his kicks, which are high enough for him to join the Rockettes, and his thick Belgian accent. If you look on his iMDb page, you'll notice that he has zero Oscar nominations. He also has two Razzie nominations (they're the opposite of the Academy Awards), including a win. There's a reason for that: the guy can't act to save his life. Frankly, with all the sparks, explosions and other assorted pyrotechnics, I was afraid he was going to catch fire. His co-star, Yancy Butler, is a little better, but not by much. She was obviously hired more for her looks than her acting ability. In all honesty, her performance is more flat than bad.
Fortunately, the villains are entertaining. Veteran character actor Lance Henrikson is clearly enjoying himself as an out and out villain, going so far over-the-top that watching him is campy fun. He rightly understands that no one could take this plot seriously, so I guess he thought he'd have some fun along the way to earning his paycheck. Arnold Vosloo, no stranger to playing villains, is also having some fun playing the mustache-twirling villain (albeit without the mustache). The two actors got along so well that one studio executive quipped that he wished he could have gotten them their own film together.
Although John Woo was brought on board due to the encouragement of Jean Claude Van Damme, the two did not get along well together. Woo's original cut ran for more than two hours and focused more on Henrickson's character. Van Damme didn't like this idea, and he and his editor locked themselves in the editing room to reedit it. What a pity; it might have been a better movie. As one might expect, the action scenes aren't the problem. Every time someone pulls out a gun, the film takes off. Woo's specialty is action and violence, and as you can imagine, these scenes are exhilarating. The problem is the stuff between it, which is deadly dull.
You do the math.