Combine Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game (also a 1932 movie) with the stylized action choreography of John Woo (with set-pieces from Hard Boiled that he repurposed), the Muscles from Brussels, and a badass villain (Lance Henriksen), and you have 1993′s Hard Target. The film is everything you imagine it would be. Jean-Claude Van Damme struggles through his lines and remains fairly wooden when he’s not doing those amazing jump kicks. Woo flashes his signature slow-mos, and over-the top violence — though, they did cut the hell out of this film, so find the unreleased, minutes longer version if you can. Arnold Vosloo makes a fearsome killer, while Yancy Butler may as well be non-existent — but it’s Henriksen’s performance as the unhinged human sportsman, Emil Fouchon, that stands out from the film’s tedious trappings.
Fouchon runs a racket aimed at the bored, millionaire jet set. The thrill-seekers pay a pretty penny to literally hunt humans for sport, and kill them. When Butler’s Natasha discovers her missing father is wrapped up in Fouchon’s violent games, she enlists the help of a drifting, down on his luck merchant seaman — who also happens to be a skilled martial artist — Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), to help her sort things out.
This is probably one of the most entertaining experiences you’ll have watching Van Damme on screen, who performs several ridiculous action sequences and has a permed mullet that just won’t quit. You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed JCVD’s Boudreaux surfing a speeding motorcycle, flipping off a vehicle — with greasy locks flying everywhere — and landing with a resounding, “Yeahhh!” as he shoots the bad guys and blows things up. His scene with a rattlesnake is not to be missed. The action hero also appears to be able to telepathically communicate with pigeons.
It’s good to know co-star Wilford Brimley has been drinking moonshine inside a shack in the swamps of New Orleans — that looks like it was made from Quaker Oats boxes — while he’s mailing you your diabetic meds. His terrible Cajun accent and worse lines — “Sometimes I ‘maze myself! Good whiskey make jackrabbit slap de bear!” — makes it seem as though Brimley should be wearing a helmet and child leash, and not operating a bow and arrow. The veteran actor stars as Van Damme’s crazy uncle, and adds some additional comic relief to the already unintentionally funny film. Also, look for a cameo from Ted Raimi, producer Sam Raimi’s younger brother, and note the Benson/Robert Guillaume look-alike.
This isn’t Shakespeare – it’s Woo delivering his first American actioner that was stifled by the studio’s anxiety over his Hong Kong filmmaking history as a master of grandiose violence. It’s also a place for one of the 90′s biggest stars, JCVD, to flex his muscles, wink at you before he strangles his opponent, and look pretty in denim. Still, it gets the job done, and you can’t help but notice the something special that Henriksen brings to the role.
In Henriksen’s upcoming biography, Not Bad for a Human — which is set to publish on May 5 — the actor expounds upon his motivations for Fouchon’s character, and his experience working with Woo, who remained completely open to Henriksen’s improvisations. Henriksen’s always gone to great lengths while preparing for a role. His personal touches included contributions to Fouchon’s costume, choice of weapons, and some of the movie’s most memorable lines. The actor has never shied away from a challenge — including being set on fire for the film … twice. For those of you who have subscribed to the urban legend that this scene was an accident, check out the below video of a behind-the-scenes peek at the moment in question. Henriksen also describes how intense the planned “burn” felt, in the book.
The actor’s irreverent, often eerily composed, and Napoleonic demeanor makes him the perfect cold-blooded, adrenaline junkie who has no qualms about treating humans like game. “I’ll fuck you, then I’ll eat you,” he tells someone. That line from another actor would have us holding our sides in laughter, but coming from Henriksen, we’re nervously giggling because we’re terrified and know it’s true. At the end of the film, we’re really rooting for the Henriksen’s cool villain, because his nuanced performance shines against the barely there presence of the movie’s top-billing Belgian star.
Hard Target isn’t John Woo’s most sophisticated action effort, and it’s a shame that Hollywood couldn’t trust the Hong Kong auteur, which would have prevented the movie from being cut to pieces. Still, Woo creates a palpably gritty atmosphere with fast-paced, bone-crunching action that is a veritable playground for a fiend like Fouchon. Henriksen’s character prowling the badlands of New Orleans with a single-shot pistol hunting his prey, is the icy inflection to Woo’s swooping camera. If Hard Target’s winning combo of the director’s prowess, Henriksen’s skill, and JCVD’s roundhouse doesn’t make this movie an ultimate guilty pleasure for you, then there’s no hope for you.
Hard Target is available on DVD.
Check out other entries in the Lance Henriksen Blogathon over here.