Nighttime in New Orleans and a homeless Vietnam War veteran is rushing through the streets, trying to avoid arrows fired by those pursuing him. If he reaches the other side of the Mississippi then he might just get away with his life, but the men behind him are determined to bring him down, some chasing him on motorbikes. This event is the brainchild of Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) who accepts great sums of money from rich businessmen looking for a new kind of hunting thrill: the excitement of murdering a human being. But as the veteran is brought down, Fouchon does not realise he will soon be crossing paths with his nemesis, Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme)...
Hard Target was much anticipated as John Woo's first American film, but when it finally arrived much of the reaction was deflated disappointment as the general consensus was that Hollywood had cramped the action auteur's style. For here Woo was not so much the star as Van Damme was, and he was in charge for a vehicle that was intended to show his high-kicking boot to the head antics at their best advantage. But seeing the film now, many of the Woo trademarks were present and in the script by Chuck Pfarrer (that's him as the veteran at the beginning) there was a welcome social conscience.
Not what you would expect from the traditional Van Damme movie, but nevertheless the story aligns itself with the disadvantaged and the working man who is stepped on by those higher up the chain of power. Indeed, the whole premise takes the old Most Dangerous Game plot cliché, where humans are hunted like animals, and takes an allegorical stance that highlights the way the callous rich abuse their positions of power. Unfortunately, this is more weight than the film can bear and it descends into a long series of shootings and explosions before the end credits roll.
Despite this, Hard Target's concerns and sympathy for those less well off do make an impact. Van Damme, bravely sporting a wet-look mullet, enters the picture when a young woman, Natasha (Yancy Butler), starts asking around for the whereabouts of her father. And of course the man we saw killed during the opening was her dear old dad, but she finds a champion in Chance when he saves her from some thugs who are after the cash she has been naively flashing around. He takes some persuading, but he needs money to get his job on a ship back by the end of the week, so agrees to assist Natasha in her search.
It's not long before Fouchon and his heavies realise that someone is on to them, so start making moves to put them off. Henriksen makes a decent villain, with an icy, boo-hiss lack of morality that sees him travel the world setting up murder hunts for his clients. But before long things start to get silly, so when Chance and Natasha finally go on the run when their lives are in danger, we get scenes such as the hilarious one where Van Damme tackles a snake. He does this by punching it in the head and tearing off its rattle with his teeth; poor old snakey then has to suffer the indignity of being part of a trap that ends up with him getting his head blown off by Henriksen. Wilford Brimley shows up as an ally, not many people's idea of an action hero perhaps, and aficionados can count off the Woo flourishes as they arise: yes, there's a dove, there's a slow motion leap while firing pistols, and so forth. You can sense the film pulling in different directions, but it does cohere eventually. Music by Graeme Revell and Tim Simonec.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.