Directing a Hollywood feature has been, and perhaps always will be, one of the highest bars for foreign talent. Plenty of great foreign directors would never get the opportunity to use fat Hollywood budgets, nor its stable of bankable stars.
John Woo was the premier director to emerge from Hong Kong’s action film bloom in the eighties. After back-to-back undeniable genre classics in The Killer and Hard Boiled he earned his ticket to Hollywood.
Jean Claude Van Damme had broke through in America on the backs of a clutch of direct-to-video action films. His pictures were playing in theaters to modest success. He must have been impatient to break into the A List. Rather than branching out into other genres and proving his range as an actor, he doubled down on making better action films.
Western film of course had been well aware of Hong Kong. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China was directly influenced by Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. The James Bond series for years tried to keep up with the genre innovations in the East. Yet the leading actors and directors of Hong Kong cinema were rarely invited to participate prominently in Western film. Jackie Chan got to be big enough, early enough, to force his way into the American market. His attempt in the early eighties fizzled, and probably put a pall on further attempts at showcasing Hong Kong talent. That’s to say it may have been overdue, but it was no small feat that Van Damme tapped John Woo to direct his next feature.
Hard Target is first and foremost a John Woo film. Woo’s style could be explained as “over the top” and “style over substance”. Hard Target can’t match the delirious staging of Hard Boiled. I don’t fault Woo on that. Hollywood never could quite match Hong Kong’s dynamism, paradoxically even when the same talent was involved in the production. Something was just lost in translation. Constrained as he may have been, Hollywood didn’t tamp down Woo’s ambitions. No scene goes to waste. Every shot is a springboard for Woo’s outsized vision.
Perhaps out of appreciation for this break into the American market, most of Hard Target’s technical flair is in direct service of its star. This is a film that features numerous portrait shots of Jean Claude Van Damme. After the first melee concludes the camera grants a slow motion strut that cuts right to an American flag waving in the breeze. Whenever Bordreaux walks into a room 1. Its dilapidated and 2. Doves flutter at his presence. Subtle, John Woo was not.
Underneath all of John Woo’s trickery lies one of Van Damme’s better characters. Chance Boudreaux has an awful haircut, a grease-streaked mullet…. He’s a skilled fighter, an experienced sailor, and even something of an amateur sleuth. There are sequences of running down leads which could have worked as a steamy film noir. Best yet Van Damme imbues Boudreaux with a self deprecating sense of humor. Van Damme’s humor is no great secret but it was a difficult thing for many films to channel. He wasn’t afraid to be self deprecating but like many of his action film peers thought himself much funnier than he really was.
Of all the Van Damme characters, this one could have carried a couple more sequels. Its certainly better than Luc from the Universal Soldier franchise.
Woo and Van Damme are trying to over achieve here, with Woo succeeding. Hard Target boasts a bit of stunt casting in bringing on Wilford Brimley to be a moonshine-swilling archer with a horrible Cajun accent. It’s Lance Henriksen who’s perfect in this picture. He knows exactly what's needed from this role and this genre. Henriksen probably took one look at all the crane shots and arrow POV special effects and correctly read that the scenery was his to chew.
Hard Target opened up Hollywood a bit for Hong Kong talent. John Woo would rack up hits through the rest of the 90s, Tsui Hark, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and others would get their turns in major productions. By JCVD Van Damme himself seemed to consider hiring John Woo his greatest career achievement.