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Hard Target Reviews

Acclaimed Hong Kong action specialist John Woo, director of THE KILLER and HARD-BOILED, made his US directing debut with this film. Though working on a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle can be seen as a comedown for Woo, he rises to the occasion to create an often rousing entertainment that is almost inarguably Van Damme's best film to date. Binder (the film's screenwriter, Chuck Pfarrer), a homeless war veteran living in New Orleans, is the latest victim in a series of hunts staged by wealthy Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen). His daughter Natasha (Yancy Butler) soon arrives in town to look for him, and receives no help from the police, who are on strike. When she's attacked on the street by a gang of punks, she's rescued by out-of-work merchant marine Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme). Needing money to pay his union dues in order to ship out, Chance agrees to help Natasha in her search, and after they learn of her father's death, the trail leads to local businessman Randal Poe (Elliott Keener), who had hired Binder to post leaflets. Poe acts as an agent for Fouchon, finding homeless combat veterans with no living relatives to serve as targets for his game, in which Fouchon offers the rich a chance to hunt human prey. After a visit from Chance, Poe is maimed by Fouchon's henchman Pik van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo) as a warning. Poe arranges for Binder's friend Roper (Willie Carpenter) to be the quarry for Fouchon's next client. Although he manages to shoot down Fouchon's client, Roper himself is killed. Fouchon, meanwhile, has learned of Chance and Natasha's search, and has Poe killed before he can tell what he knows. Chase and Natasha are ambushed by Fouchons' gunmen and Carmine (Kasi Lemmons), a policewoman who's been helping them, is shot dead in the gunfight. Chance and Natasha are subsequently pursued by Fouchon's men, but manage to escape into the bayou. Fouchon pledges to destroy Chance and brings in an army of mercenaries to help him, while Chance and Natasha take refuge with the former's moonshiner uncle, Douvee (Wilford Brimley). Fouchon's army attacks Douvee's shack, but several of them fall victim to explosives Chance and Douvee have planted there. Chance leads the hunters to a huge warehouse where Mardi Gras floats are stored, and begins to pick off his attackers one by one. Natasha and Douvee, ignoring Chance's orders to get help, arrive at the warehouse and are taken hostage, but Chance manages to rescue them and kill van Cleaf and, ultimately, Fouchon. Beyond the American settings, the most obvious difference between HARD TARGET and Woo's Hong Kong films is the absence of his habitual exploration of the symbiotic relationship between characters who on the surface represent opposite sides of the law. (Ironically, just such a subtext was explored to excellent effect in the all-American THE FUGITIVE, released the same summer.) There are no grey areas of morality here; even if he does have to be paid to join the search for Binder at first, Chance is clearly an uncomplicated good guy, while Fouchon and van Cleaf are unredeemable villains. The storyline similarly lacks any great complexity, straightforwardly reprising THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME for the umpteenth time, adding heavier firepower and some New Orleans spice to the formula. That said, the script does provide a sturdy vehicle for Woo's trademark visual flair and intense action, both of which are several notches above the usual American guns-and-guts standard. Movies like this live or die based on their action setpieces, and this one contains some winners: the pursuit of Roper in the cemetery, the lengthy climactic showdown in and around the Mardi Gras warehouse, and especially the sequence beginning with Carmine's murder and coming to an explosive end on a bridge. Though these scenes apparently lost some of their visceral power in cuts required to bring the film to an R-rated level, they evince Woo's mastery of the form nonetheless. The director even manages to coax a decent performance out of Van Damme, even if the visual flourishes that accentuate the mythic qualities of Chow Yun-Fat's characters in his Asian films seem a little facetious when applied to the fairly inexpressive "Muscles from Brussels." The actor who comes off best is Henriksen, who brings a palpable, serpentine menace to Fouchon and has a startling moment in which he delivers an angry speech while trying to wrestle a flaming jacket off his back. Butler is less convincing as the young woman who puts the story in motion, and Brimley, sporting a wavering Cajun accent, is a casting gimmick that doesn't quite come off. As often happens, New Orleans itself almost comes to function as a character, its back alleys and bayous dripping with atmosphere thanks to Russell Carpenter's cinematography. Despite the cuts, HARD TARGET proves that Woo's approach works just fine in any language, and one looks forward to the day when he's given an American script that's the equal of his abilities. (Graphic violence, profanity.)