In the ’90s, John Woo came to Hollywood…and then had to work with Jean-Claude Van Damme: “Hard Target”

September 5, 2013


Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo pretty much defined a genre and re-defined action movies on a global scale. He brought an almost heretical stylization to action sequences that went beyond Sam Peckinpah’s loving slow motion and straight into semi-deification of the human form in motion. He made films that were legitimately great and that transcended cultural and language barriers.  Naturally, the logical next move was to move to Hollywood, where surely the greatness of a non-white, non-American would be recognized and prized, and where directors held complete sway over a film, never challenged by producers or stars, and where his pure, undistilled vision could be put on screen…(cough). And then, as I like to imagine it, he had a meeting with a studio exec that went more or less like the climax of Crank 2: High Voltage, in which a head in a jar just galumphs “Dorp…dorp..dorp…” and then gives him Jean-Claude Van Damme’s phone number.

Yes, in the ‘90s we openly embraced Jean-Claude Van Damme, because…Hell, I don’t know. He was a good martial artist, I suppose, and I guess after spending the ‘80s trying to decipher Stallone and Schwarzenegger, a tenuous grasp of the English language really wasn’t even close to being a deal-breaker. Besides, ol’ JCVD was at least pretty normal –looking, and he throw an impressive kick. I mean, what more really do we need from an action star?

So, in Hard Target, JCVD plays a Cajun merchant fisherman named Chance Boudreux, because why the hell not? An accent’s an accent, right? Down-on-his-luck Chance sees an opportunity to make an honest buck helping out a wide-eyed young woman named Nat Binder (Yancy Butler), who has come to Nawlins to find her missing, estranged father.

Yancy Butler is surprised by everything...

Yancy Butler is surprised by everything…

What Nat and Chance don’t know—but we have since the opening credits—is that her father is dead, hunted for sport by bored millionaires in a Most Dangerous Game scenario run by evil rich dude Emil Fouchon (the always-awesome Lance Henriksen). This leads to a surprisingly slow first half as Nat and Chance play Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Homeless Veterans Hunted for Sport, and the viewer screams at the screen, “It’s Lance Henriksen! What the hell else do you think he’s doing in this movie?!?”

Fortunately, the final half or so of the movie is wall-to-wall action, as Chance and Nat finally run afoul of Emil and his right-hand man, Pik van Cleef (no, really, that’s his name). Unfortunately for them, Chance is a pure force of action—a martial arts master and pretty effective at using a submachine gun while tearing ass on  a motorcycle. Because all your Cajun fishermen have the fighting skills of a Navy SEAL. And the rest of film is a series of lovingly-crafted action set-pieces, in which the first to die are the laws of physics.

All fishermen are trained on German submachine guns.

All fishermen are trained on German submachine guns.

Now, Hard Target is pleasing on a pure, action-oriented level, but as an action movie it pretty much crumples and flails and goes unk! It’d be easy to hang this on JCVD and Yancy Butler, but that’s low-hanging fruit. I mean, you don’t cast JCVD for his acting chops. You cast him for his athletic prowess and to do the splits every so often (gotta give the girlfriends a little something, right?) And Butler, in the days before her battles with alcoholism, is an okay actress, but her character really only exists to make the plot to places where shit explodes.

Like so.

Like so.

No, Woo’s biggest problem is Woo. He has his affectations and can’t bear to give up any of them. Action movie audiences in the US will accept a few of them, but too many simply serve to drain the scenes of any realism, and for US action movies, that’s kind of a kiss of death. Action movies in American cinema have always been about the intersection of fantastic scenes and reality. It’s why stuntmen and stunt choreographers were so important. It’s also why the action in the original Die Hard is so much more effective than in, say this year’s Die Hard and Whatever the Fuck. Watching Bruce Willis’s stuntman dangle off a skyscraper takes our breath away. Watching Bruce act opposite a massive CGI helicopter explosion is so obviously unbelievable and as a result nothing hits home. It’s also why a patently stupid movie like I Come in Peace can be so much fun.

The best movie about extra-terrestrial drug dealers ever made.

The best movie about extra-terrestrial drug dealers ever made.

When Chance kicks a gasoline can at his enemy in slow motion and then shoots it one-handed, blowing up the bad guy, the scene looks amazing, like nothing we’ve seen before. It’s also so patently fake, we feel nothing. We don’t cheer for Chance, because he won by doing something that is purely impossible. Likewise, when Emil is blasted in the chest with a shotgun, it looks great when he skids across the ground. When he gets back up to harass Chance some more, we wonder just what the rules are in this world. There’s simply no tension.

In Woo’s defense, he’s accustomed to working with actors who are better at understanding his vision (the language barrier doesn’t help here). Chow Yun Fat can brood amid fluttering doves and sell the hell out of the scene. When Woo tries that with JCVD, he ends up with a confused-looking dude who seems to be very slowly trying to decide if he should kick one of the birds.

By some accounts, JCVD never really understood Woo and didn’t much care. This helps explain why only Henriksen—who was effusive in his praise for Woo—emerges unscathed. It’s telling that an actor who started his career illiterate, needing scripts read to him to learn his lines (at age 30), would be able to catch the visual idea and physicality Woo was looking for.

Uh-oh  Lance is angry. I'll just be in the next state...

Uh-oh Lance is angry. I’ll just be in the next state…

Woo would continue in Hollywood for another fifteen years or so, before heading back to China. He made some decent movies—many of which were pretty profitable—but never found a niche here. Some of his ideas were taken and repurposed by other directors (Relentless 2 steals from him so shamelessly it’s embarrassing). Woo learned a tough lesson about a nation built on assimilation and acculturation: whether it’s breakfast burritos or chop suey, the original concept can never survive unaltered.

Next: A killer robot chases a chick around her apartment with a dildo. Oh yes, that happens…in Hardware.

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