Hard Target and the Fall of John Woo

I am not sure who the first foreign filmmaker was that decided to emigrate to Hollywood seeking fame, fortune, and artistic satisfaction. A case could be made for Charlie Chaplin. Maybe it was Chaplin’s success that inspired other foreign directors that all it would take to find worldwide recognition was a quick plane ride away. But only a few filmmakers managed the transition. For every Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder, there’s a Francois Truffaut, Sergei Eisenstein, Paul Verhoeven (despite his strong start), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and Kim Jee Woon. Most iconic foreign filmmakers (like Fellini and Kurosawa) stayed put and ignored Hollywood’s call, figuring that whatever frustrations they faced in their own country would be far better than the Barton Fink-like existence they would find in the Golden State.

One of the most tragic of these immigrations is the one of John Woo. For a while, he seemed like among the most exciting filmmakers in the world. His Hong Kong output, especially The Killer, blended the sensibilities of Martin Scorsese with the kind of choreographed action scenes that were indebted to Sam Peckinpah but had never really been seen before. Even the aforementioned Scorsese sang his praises on watching The Killer, and American filmmakers like Tarantino were pointing to him as an influence as they were starting their own careers. It was only natural that Hollywood would come knocking on his door. After the box office failure of Hard Boiled, it made sense that Woo felt his success was dwindling in his home land and that the enthusiastic response his films were receiving in America meant that he would be embraced across the Pacific.

We know how the story ends. He made one good movie (Face/Off) and the rest of his output downright spotty, with well choreographed action scenes combined with stupid scripts and one dimensional performances. It was really his first American film, Hard Target, that set this bar.

Hard Target is another version of The Most Dangerous Game. This time, it is transplanted into New Orleans, where Lance Henrikson offers to pay homeless veterans $10,000 if they can make it across the city “to the river.” During the entire way, they are chased by wealthy men who have paid to hunt humans. After one person dies, his daughter comes to New Orleans in the midst of a police strike to figure out what happened. Then she meets Jean Claude Van Damme and his mullet. They apparently solve crimes, and she hires the pair (van Damme and mullet) to find the men who murdered her father.

Does this sound like the sort of morality play that Woo had become known for in Hong Kong? You’ve already figured out one of the biggest problems with Hard Target. It’s the sort of film that could have been made by any action director of the early 90s. There’s no personality to it and no desperation in the story. It doesn’t need to exist. The whole thing is like hiring Goya as a caricature artist – a waste of talent on a trivial pursuit.

The film is actually incredibly stylish and most resembles one of Woo’s earlier Hong Kong films. As such, Hard Target cannot be viewed as a complete failure. Indeed, those qualities have helped the film gain a sort of cult following in subsequent decades. Everything about the gun fight ballets that people loved about Woo is on display, including the slow motion kills and the hero holding two guns while firing as many bullets as possible. Even Woo’s worst films are well choreographed. Woo even throws in some visual references to his previous films to tease people.

So what kills the film? Predictably, it’s Jean Claude Van Damme. Chow Yun Fat was a tortured man who did not view violence in a positive light. Every single murdered he committed in Woo’s films was one that filled him with existential dread. Not so here. Damme exerted his energy on keeping his mullet well kept instead of thinking about what he’s doing. A few kicks, a few mumbled one liners, and a scene in which he punches out a snake is all Damme apparently needed. What’s strange is how the film was designed around Damme rather than Woo. Woo was meant to be the one showing his wings. Damme was even a fan of Woo. What service are you providing when you force a director to film scenes like this?

It’s not so much that I’m disappointed in the fact van Damme was ever allowed to be in a movie. It’s that the studio decided John Woo’s skills were only worthy of working with D-list action stars. Woo was ready to go – the impeccable style he shows in this film is a demonstration of that. But any depth that he had in his Hong Kong output was removed for the purpose of showcasing a man who had already proven himself.

Hard Target is available on Netflix Instant if you feel so inclined to check it out. It’s a fascinating look at the problems with the Hollywood action film of the early 90s. It had the potential to be wonderful, but not even Woo could escape the shoddy script and the anti-charisma of Jean Claude Van Damme. Woo should have been allowed to go out with both guns blazing. People wanted to see the first American Woo picture, not another kickboxing vehicle. And Face Off proved he could make it. It is impossible to watch the film now without a feeling of sadness over seeing the wasted potential on display.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
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One Response to Hard Target and the Fall of John Woo

  1. Karolina Kenson says:

    “I want to do a western”, John Woo told the crew on Hard Target in a documentary about his work. Viewing the movie as a modernized western does help it some. Even when watching Van Damme if you can imagine him doing a take on the Man with no name played by Clint Eastwood. Kurt Russell being Woo’s original choice to play the lead would have probably worked out better but Russell might’ve been busy creating his own western playing Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. Finally most of the power that Woo brought to the film was lost in the re-editing of it. To see Woo’s vision and impact it resurfaced in the workprint. A much more fullfilling experience awaits in a longer and more strong take on the action and drama Woo managed to create. Sadly the longer version should’ve been released so that this lost and flawed masterpiece of John Woo’s transition from Hong Kong to Hollywood could be seen.

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