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'Hard Target' Misses The Great Action Mark

Hard Target directed by John Woo at Cinema 57

By John Aboud

"Hard Target" is an earnest action film. It has aspirations of being more than just fists and bullets. It wants your respect, and you want to like it.

But you can't.

In many ways, "Hard Target" hits the mark. It is cerie, tense, eye-popping and humorous by turns, all thanks to Hong Kong's action-king, John Woo. "Hard Target," his American directoral debut, has been trumpeted by the Hollywood press juggernaut and awaited with drooling anticipation by Woo's growing American cult.

But what drives the Woo fan club mad, in both Bel Air and Brockton, is the one thing Woo can't get away with in the US: over-the-top, mind-bending, gut-wrenching, only-expressible-with-hyphenation violence. Woo's 1989 film "The Killer" features scores of deaths, each carried out with a dozen bullets. Reviewers enjoy comparing Woo's 1990 "A Bullet in the Head" with Michael Cimino's similarly Vietnam-themed "The Deer Hunter" and fliply deeming the latter "a Disney romp."

Like "RoboCop" and "Basic Instinct," "Hard Target" went through the same tortuous wrangling with the MPAA ratings board; a prologue to the release of "naughty" films which became trite with the blatantly orchestrated flap over "Sliver." Reportedly, "Target" had to be whittled at seven times before it could earn an "R" rating.

The editors of "Hard Target" did a more thorough job than those of the other films, however. The film seems castrated compared to other John Woo fare. Woo's fans will likely walk away disappointed.

The bullets don't pour out at such cartoonish levels. Blood does not erupt from bodies in languid slow-motion shots--a John Woo specialty.

One isn't even exactly sure where the excised scenes would have fit in, so drastic is the editing. It is hard to imagine that "Target" was nearly rated NC-17 when its final cut is worlds tamer than such gunfests as "Total Recall" or "Die Hard II."

In place of artistic brutality are meatheaded stunts. The most numbingly stupid one is a case of "motorcycle surfing." The advantage of standing on the seat of a moving motorcycle while being shot at is obvious only to the most dedicated of movie heroes. Unlearned audience members simply squint in confusion.

Plenty of the John Woo stamp remains despite restrictions, however. Woo's most recurrent touch is the arcing closeup. Tight shots on the face, directing attention to the eyes, do not hold still, but arc around the head. The meditative, emotional effect is powerful and highly unusual for an action film.

But little about "Hard Target" is usual. Casting pseudo-star Jean-Claude Van Damme must have sounded like a dream proposition--teaming the latest hot director with 1991's almost-a-hit actor. It seemed likely that the two draws, Woo and Van Damme, would cross-hype each other, pushing both firmly into the A-list.

The script, written by Chuck Pfarrer, is tailor-made for Van Damme. Set in New Orleans its hero is Chance Boudreaux, a Cajun longshore worker in need of cash.

Van Damme's thick accent is thought to be one of the reasons he has yet to become a major star. The Cajun gambit was last played in "Universal Soldier" to some box office success, but Van Damme can't fall back on this forever.

In this case, Chance's bayou connection is of importance to the plot. The villains of "Hard Target" are a pair of arrangers who set up human hunting safaris along the lines of "The World's Most Dangerous Game." For a hefty price, the ultra-rich can get the high of manslaughter your basic street punk gets every week.

It's only logical that the plot will eventually climax in a hunt through Chance's native swamps. What's unexpected is that Wilfrid Brimley will be in the marshes fighting along side Van Damme as Chance's uncle. Between "The Firm" and "Hard Target," Brimley seems to be going to great efforts to banish the Quaker Oats guy forever.

As the villians, Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo go through the typical bad guy motions. Vosloo is the more memorable of the pair, though Henriksen does deserve credit for shooting a sequence in which he rages at his men with his topcoat ablaze.

Both actors make it clear that their characters are upper-crust crooks. Though ruthless and determined, they have a foppish quality and a refinement surprising for someone in their line of work. In one nice mise-en-scene bit Henriksen plays a Beethoven sonata in the drawing room of his estate while another homeless man is recruited for the next hunt. Henriksen's crony questions the victim about his finances and relatives. Each answer is intercut with shots of Henricksen and his opulent estate.

The script deserves credit for realizing the class conflicts in such a plot. Seducing the homeless into the game, the criminals use the lure of a cash prize for surviving. The dilemma of the victims is not ignored. Their uncertainty and hesitancy is won over by the chance of getting off the streets. The predations of the rich take many forms: an uncaring society ignores the downtrodden and then consumes them for sport.

Pfarrer also has the good sense to leave out any romantic complications. Yancy Butler plays Natasha Binder, a young woman whose search for her father leads to the discovery of the hunting game. Van Damme and Butler exchange some hugs and lots of slow motion looks but nothing more. An affair between the characters would be preposterous and it rightfully left alone.

"Hard Target" is worth seeing if only for the promise it shows for a new kind of action movie. Some of the worst cliches are discarded and some expert stylish touches are included. As a result the pacing is uneven and definitely unpredictable.

But the sense of something missing is overwhelming. "Hard Target" is overly lyrical and fluid because the true violence has been removed. With those sequences back in, the film would likely hit the critical mass it attempts to reach.

There's a lot more to come from John Woo, but this is not the ideal preview one might have hoped for.

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