A quick re-watch of Expendables 2 the other day reminded me of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s turn as the maniacal Jean Vilain. We’ve spoken about many of cinema’s greatest badasses on this website – Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Statham, Norris and so forth, but never JCVD. I figured it was about time to revisit one of Van Damme’s greatest triumphs. Let’s talk about Hard Target.
New Orleans, night time. Zach Galifinakis’s doppelganger, Douglas Binder (Chuck Pfarrer – Navy SEALs, Darkman) is being chased along the outskirts of the city by shadowy men firing spinning crossbow bolts of death at him. It’s very tense. As Binder desperately evades his pursuers, the eminently evil Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen – Aliens, Terminator) orchestrates his demise from afar.
Eventually, Crossbow Man (Robert Apisa – Executive Decision, Last Boy Scout) finishes off Binder with a bolt through the heart (and dog-tag). Fouchon remarks how much of a rush hunting a human being is and we realize to our horror that these bastards are just doing it for the money.
Still, it all seemed a little too easy. What they really need is a push, a challenge.
What they really need is a… Hard Target!
Enter Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Chance Boudreaux. And he’s just that: a chancer – a Navy washout trying to claw his way out of union debts along with the forgotten dregs of underclass America. But while he may be down on his luck, he’s still not above bouncing some punks up and down the street when they attack a young out-of-towner.
It turns out Binder had a daughter, Natasha (Yancy Butler – Drop Zone, Kick Ass), who doesn’t know why her Daddy has suddenly gone silent. She needs someone with savy and skills who can help her. Chance brokers a deal with her: a couple hundred bucks for a few days detective work. No problemo, right? WRONG. But can a former United States marine living on the streets be that hard to find?
Sadly it would seem that Binder Snr has dropped off the planet. The police are on strike, save birthday girl Detective Mitchell (Kasi Lemmons – Silence of the Lambs, Candyman), but finding a homeless dude ain’t high on her t0-do list. Chance’s buddie, Elijah, another homeless Vietnam vet, knows him.
Together they find his old pack of stuff, complete with nostalgic baby picture of Natasha and porno-fliers for the local strip & suck. Natasha, utterly unaware of how the shittier end of the stick smells, looks on shocked and aghast. Elijah and Chance re-assure her (from personal experience) that they’re just handed out for money. But it’s another lead.
It takes them to the guy who is hiring these poor suckers: a jittery fat bastard, Randal. While he stonewalls the pair, it’s clear he’s hiding something. It turns out that he is screening the desperate hobos for Fouchon’s deadly game. But before Chance can wring the truth from him, Fouchon’s number one muscle Pik Van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo – The Mummy, Blood Diamond) turns up.
They meet eyes and both instantly know that they’re the only two jungle cats in town. Fouchon, now aware that people are sniffing around, lays down a message for Randal: make sure the next target has no family, no ties. To make sure he gets the message, he cuts Randal’s ear off in what is a clear breach of their employer/employee contract. Randal promises to do better in future, as Van Cleef and Fouchon ponder the abilities of Chance. They figure he too needs to get the memo telling him to get the hell out of dodge.
Meanwhile, Binder’s body has been found, charred beyond recognition in an old building. Accidental death is the ruling, but Chance knows better. After digging around the ruins, he finds the crossbow-bolted dogtags. He gets a drubbing for his troubles from Fouchon’s men and awakes in jail. But he still has the dogtags, Goddammit, and they’re just enough for Mitchell to re-open the case.
The coroner (whom was on Fouchon’s payroll) is quickly taken out before he can forge another report. Sensing he’s rumbled, Fouchon decides to pull one last hunt before re-locating to Europe. Randal has set his new client, Mr. Zenan, up with an old friend of ours – Elijah.
He’s taken to the outskirts of town and told he has five minutes to run ten miles before they’re coming for him. If he makes it alive, he gets the cash. If he fails, he gets the booby prize (which is death, if you hadn’t guessed). Elijah is no pushover though, and it doesn’t help that Fouchon is baby-sitting a total pussy in Zenan.
After wussing out on finishing the downed veteran, Elijah makes a quick recovery, steals Zenan’s gun, and puts bullets in a few men. Fouchon, enraged, coup de graces Zenan, and sets Van Cleef on Elijah. Despite making it to Bourbon Street, Elijah is butchered in front of a bunch of unwitting on-lookers. Mitchell, meanwhile, is getting close to the truth.
Along with Chance and Natasha, she goes to see Randal to ask further questions. Pik, tying up loose ends, is already there. After re-decorating the inside of a car with Randal’s brains, Van Cleef pops Mitchell, and has a go at Chance and Natasha. Cue a mental motorcycle escape, including explosions, crashing into boxes, and Fouchon’s men being whipped.
Fouchon can’t let them get away. Not now. They’ve seen too much. He enlists some of his old hunting buddies, including Crossbow Man, Shirtman (Sven-Ole Thorsen – Conan the Barbarian, Red Heat), and Snakedude (Jules Sylvester – Dracula, Turner & Hooch) for one last hunt.
Meanwhile, Chance and Natasha are making their way through the Bayou, leaving a host of deadly Home Alone traps. They rendezvous with Chance’s uncle Douvee (Wilford Brimley – The Thing, Ewoks: Battle for Endor), a moonshine-brewing hillbilly. Chance leaves Natasha in his care as he goes to lead Fouchon and Pik away. His pursuers corner him in a Mardi Gras graveyard – a warehouse of creepy old floats.
But suddenly the hunters are the hunted: Chance picks them off one by one, kicking, gunning, and quipping his way through to Pik. After dealing with the head-honcho-hunter, only Fouchon is left. He has a hostage, however – Natasha and Douvee have returned to help Chance (like he needed any). Foolishly, he gambles on his bullet being faster than JCVD’s flying kick.
Of course, we all know who is going to win in that race. So it’s now one-on-one. Fouchon has traded his one-shot hand cannon for a flaming plank of wood. But Hacksaw Jim Duggan he is not. Soon the two-by-four is in splinters, and Fouchon’s crappy little aikido moves can’t stop Chance from depositing a hand grenade down the front of his pants. Fouchon is blown to hell, and Chance, Natasha, and Douvee make their way out and back to reality.
Much has already been written of the 80’s being the Golden Era for action cinema. But Belgium-born Van Damme truly came into his own in the 90’s. For JCVD, Hard Target is a massive highlight in a varied career. Despite making his start as Ivan the Russian, in 1988’s No Retreat No Surrender, Van Damme hit his stride with action classics Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Double Impact, Universal Solider, Hard Target and Timecop all made within six years.
While Timecop may have flying round-house-kicked the box office with a bit more force, I feel Hard Target is the superior film. It is a perfect mix of denim-clad martial arts, unique gun play, maniacal villains, and just enough story to keep the film ticking over.
It doesn’t suffer from Jean-Claude bumbling a few lines either. People often give the badass elite (Arnold, Stallone etc) as not being the strongest actors. I say that you have to pick the right tool to do the right job. I wouldn’t favour Schwarzenegger in the Pianist. But equally, I’d sooner buy Schwarzenegger in Predator than Adrien Brody in Predators.
Yes, some of JCVD’s dialogue in Hard Target is clunky. He’s still perfectly cast. Being set in New Orleans gives a valid reason for him to be French for once. And I actually appreciate the silly little way he says “wall-ette” or “Momma & Poppa”. It’s suited perfectly to the role and the environment. Indeed, this is truly a multinational affair. It feels almost artistically foreign. It’s somehow not a standard American, Michael bay cookie-cutter action film.
Instead, Chinese director John Woo (whom cut his teeth on classics like The Killer, and Hard Boiled) adds his trademark flare to what might have been a generic actioner. While the budget may have held grander plans of the visionary director in check, this compromise lends itself perfectly to the setting and the story.
Not only do you have the Frenchy-JCVD, but the South African Arnold Vosloo chewing his way through the scenery. I can’t escape this review without mentioning Henricksen either. Forever the background man, Henriksen is often one of the cornerstones of a great film. Here he is given the spotlight and the chance to really shine. And shine he does.
Like Johnny Depp stealing the show in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Lance Henriksen mugs the shit out of everyone else in Hard Target. Yes, even Van Damme. He starts off as some cruel bastard and ends as a maniacal fiend screaming random threats at the air. I love his unique single-shot gun, his attempts at erudite living, and how Henriksen just doesn’t give a fuck when it comes to stunts.
JCVD, a man of martial prowess, is clearly replaced by a wig-adorned stunt man on more than one occasion here. But the real Henriksen is set on fire, caught in an explosion, and batters his co-stars at every opportunity. He may have been ripped into a milky mess in Aliens, or blown away by the Terminator, but this is Henriksen at his best.
Hard Target isn’t hard to like. It has all the elements of a classic action film. It’s a highlight in the careers of two Hollywood greats, is the American introduction to a great director, and ticks all the boxes when it comes to Bastards. Get it watched.