Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in a film that is yet another version of The Most Dangerous Game, what could possibly make this any better? Perhaps the fact that it was also John Woo making his first feature in America, after amassing such a loyal fanbase of his Hong Kong films. Would we get some impressive slo-mo moments, two guns being fired while characters dive across the screen, and doves flying into the air? Of course we would, which makes Hard Target a film that provides just as much fun today as it did when first released a quarter of a century ago (yes, it's been 25 years).
Van Damme plays the wonderfully-monikered Chance Boudreaux, a drifter in New Orleans who cannot get himself back into a job he has been selected for until he earns enough money to pay his union dues. But he can't pay those dues until he gets a job, of course, so finds himself in a vicious circle. For about half a minute. The chance to earn some money comes about when a young woman (Natasha, played by Yancy Butler) wants to hire someone as she searches for her missing father, an ex-veteran who fell on hard times. The pair start to do their amateur detective work, eventually piecing together evidence to realise what viewers have known from the very beginning; Natasha's father was paid by people who then chased him down and killed him before he could reach a designated safe point.
Like many other people, I really liked Hard Target when I first saw it. But I believe that I liked it then purely for the Van Damme factor. I wasn't familiar enough with John Woo to know of his style, I hadn't seen too many previous incarnations of this material (apart from The Running Man, which managed to feel a bit removed from the original idea because of the additional comments on the media and manipulation of the masses), and nobody else in the cast made much of an impression, simply because I was waiting for the next scene that would put Van Damme front and centre again.
Rewatching the movie with more knowledge tucked away into my brainparts has led me to find even more reasons to keep it marked as a fun action thriller, and one I am always happy to revisit. Van Damme may have the top billing but he's not the star here. The star here is Woo, clearly having a lot of fun with the cast and resources at his disposal. His style is stamped all over this, almost from the very first scene, as a statement of intent. "I have come to your shores," it says, "and this is why you wanted me here in the first place, so take it or leave it."
The script, by Chuck Pfarrer, is focused more on fun than any sense of realism, allowing for some decent exchanges between all of the main characters, and also some absolutely wonderful lines uttered by Lance Henriksen (the main villain).
Speaking of Henriksen, he almost steals this entire movie, which is easier for him to do as Woo balances things between allowing his leading man to have some leading man moments and allowing himself plenty of Woo-isms. Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo have a lot of fun with their roles, Van Damme gets to deliver some impressive smackdowns (including a great moment that sees him dealing with a rattlesnake), Butler does okay in her role (it's a bit underwritten but far from the worst female role in the action genre, especially from this time, and I can't help thinking a more recognisable actress could have lifted things slightly), and there's good support from Willie C. Carpenter, Kasi Lemmons, and the great Wilford Brimley.
Booby-traps, armed people riding motorbikes to track their potential victims, grenades being lobbed around with a distinct lack of real care, and let's not forget a damn fine mullet being worn by Van Damme, this has all of these treats and a lot more. Watch it, enjoy it, and rewatch it whenever you feel the urge. Which may happen more often than you expect.
You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a version here.