The early nineties were arguably the heyday of brawny action. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the world’s biggest star, thanks to Total Recall and Terminator 2. Sylvester Stallone was just a little behind him with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, but the lower-tier action stars were starting to catch up. Steven Seagal had a string of hits and was briefly about to hit the big time with Under Siege. At the same time, the Muscles from Brussels was finding his way into bigger studio fare and teamed up with arguably the greatest action director of all time for one of his best movies – Hard Target, which is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its release.
Jump back to 1991, when Jean-Claude Van Damme had two movies that broke through at the North American box office. First up, in January of that year, was Lionheart, which carried a low budget but made $22 million for Universal. This was notable as something interesting was happening with his movies’ grosses. Every time a new JCVD movie came out, it made more than the one before it. Double Impact was another major hit in the summer, earning nearly $30 million. It was big enough that in the summer of 1992, JCVD got to lead his first big-budget action movie, Universal Soldier, which grossed $36 domestically. It was a smash overseas, with the movie coming close to $100 million worldwide.
Audiences had a thing for the Muscles From Brussels, but what made him different from a guy like Steven Seagal was that women liked him just as much as men. He was such a heartthrob that Columbia put him in a straightforward melodrama called Nowhere to Run, which only had a modest amount of action and made ok money. Van Damme could do it all. He could kick ass for the fellas and then show ass for the ladies. Universal noticed and signed him to a rich deal leading to a string of modest hits throughout the nineties.
His first film for them would be Hard Target. A take on Most Dangerous Game, JCVD would star as Chance Boudreaux, a Cajun, nearly homeless, out-of-work seaman hired by a young man, Yancy Butler’s Natasha, to find her missing, homeless father. It turns out the man who hunted and killed for sport for Lance Henriksen’s Emil Fouchon and Arnold Vosloo’s Pic Van Cleef, who arrange man hunts in New Orleans for their wealthy clients. Soon, Chance and Natasha become targets when they learn the truth, but as the title suggests, Chance will be a challenging guy to hunt.
Hard Target was written by Chuck Pfarrer, a former Navy SEAL turned writer of action movies, having penned Navy SEALS and Darkman. He also plays Natasha’s father in the violent opening. What would make the film an event for action fans was that it would mark the U.S. debut of John Woo. Widely regarded as the greatest action director in the world, Woo had made a string of action masterpieces in Hong Kong, with The Killer and Hard Boiled earning him fans in the U.S., including JCVD and the head of Universal. Woo was hired to direct the movie, and he made it into a calling card, building up the action to a truly spectacular level unlike anything seen in American film up to this point, for an amazingly thrifty $20 million budget. The movie puts to shame action movies that cost three times that in 1993.
Watching the movie now, it’s clear that John Woo knows precisely how to use his cast. At the time, Woo realized Van Damme’s range was limited, so the plot is built around the villain, Lance Henriksen’s Fouchon, whose role is even more prominent in the work print. A sportsman obsessed with hunting the deadliest prey, Henriksen looks like a classic John Woo movie character. This likely frustrated Van Damme, who did a cut of the film that excised much on Henriksen’s role. It never got released, as Woo was somewhat protected by his producer Jim Jacks and exec producer Sam Raimi. The film was extensively cut, but due to the MPAA, who were stunned at the level of violence in the movie, which wouldn’t have made anyone bat an eye in Hong Kong. Woo himself said that he would have preferred someone like Kurt Russell as his lead, but years later, in a THR article, he said he has no regrets about working with JCVD and that despite everything, he still admired him.
Back to JCVD. While he had issues with Woo then, the director uses him exceptionally well. He films JCVD lovingly, with his greasy mullet looking great, giving him plenty of opportunities to combine his martial arts acumen with classic John Woo gunplay. There are some incredible action set pieces, including the famous scene where Chance stands on a motorcycle, shooting at the bad guys. The action throughout the film is impeccable, especially if you watch the underrated cut released on Blu-ray last year. The carnage is exquisite.
The movie also boasts an incredible supporting cast – probably the best JCVD ever had. As the love interest, Natasha, we have Yancy Butler, a nineties dream girl thanks to her role on the syndicated series Witchblade. She has good chemistry with Van Damme and a wonderfully expressive face, especially during the snake scene. Lance Henriksen, of course, is brilliant as Fouchon. This was a golden era for the actor, with him also stealing the show in another nineties favorite, Stone Cold. Eventually, he would get to be the hero of his own series, Chris Carter’s Millennium, and just recently, he was brilliant in Viggo Mortensen’s Falling. Hard Target also offered South African heavy Arnold Vosloo a great early part as Van Cleef, who was no doubt named after the Spaghetti Western icon, Lee Van Cleef. Based on his performance here, Vossloo would be cast as Darkman in a slew of DTV sequels before going on to his most famous role in The Mummy.
Best of all, though, is the late Wilford Brimley. Whoever’s idea it was to cast the Quaker Oats pitchman as Chance’s Cajun uncle Douvee. Woo said the idea was to have him come in and lighten up the movie, and Brimley looks like he’s having the time of his life riding horses and killing bad guys with his bow and arrow. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of when, at the end of Nobody, Christopher Lloyd shows up as Bob Odenkirk’s dad and starts mowing down bad guys. You can tell Brimley never thought he’d get the chance to do action on the big screen, and the smile he has on his face during some of his major action moments says it all.
Hard Target wound of being a decent-sized hit for Universal. It made about $32 million in the U.S., which was average for Van Damme, but more than doubled the gross overseas and became a massive hit on the rental market once it hit VHS. Obviously, Universal was happy with the results, and they would keep making movies with him over the next few years, with them putting out his biggest hit, TimeCop, the following year.
Meanwhile, Woo would have to direct another straightforward U.S. action flick, Broken Arrow, before getting the chance to do a proper,Hong Kong-style action movie with Face/Off, which would establish him as an A-List director in Hollywood, for a while anyway, before he would eventually return to China for his Magnum Opus, Red Cliff.
While JCVD’s career cooled after the nineties, Hard Target remains a beloved entry into his cannon, and who knows? JCVD is still in good shape and could easily handle whatever John Woo could throw at him. Maybe the two will reunite someday. They eventually made a Hard Target 2, but it was a DTV in-name-only sequel starring Scott Adkins. Maybe one day they’ll make the real thing!
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/john-woo-hard-target-jean-claude-van-dammes-best-movie/