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John Woo's Hard Target Remains a Wild Ride 30 Years Later

Let's take a look back at John Woo's first film in the United States.

By Matthew Jackson
Chance Boudreaux (Jean Claude Van Damme) in Hard Target (1993)

When you think of John Woo films made in the United States, you probably don't think of Hard Target first. It's not a dig at the film, it's just that Woo would later go on to make things like Mission: Impossible 2 and, of course, Face/Off for American studios. It's hard to compete for the spotlight with Face/Off, but as action fans know, Hard Target is still very much worth your time.

Why you should go back and revisit John Woo's Hard Target

Released 30 years ago this month, the film marks Woo's first trip to America to direct a film for a major U.S. studio (Universal Pictures, in this case) and therefore marks an important transition point in a stellar career. Woo was already a world-renowned action master thanks to films like The KillerA Better Tomorrow, and Hard Boiled. No one on the planet could shoot gunfights quite like John Woo, and his "Heroic Bloodshed" movies full of incredible stunt work, explosions, and heavily stylized shots had already made him an action cinema institution. The trip to America was inevitable, and after three decades, the product of that first journey across the Pacific is still very much worth your time.

RELATED: Face/Off Remains One of the Wildest, and Best, '90s Action Movies

A loose adaptation of The Most Dangerous GameHard Target follows a former Marine and occasional sailor named Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) as he drifts through New Orleans, eventually falling into the orbit of Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler), a woman desperate to find her estranged father. What Natasha doesn't know is that her father is already dead, having been hired by criminal mastermind Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) to participate in a human hunt for sport, which he did not survive. What begins as a murder mystery soon becomes a fight for their lives, as Chance and Natasha must stay ahead of Fouchon and his men, or become the targets themselves.

Van Damme was already a major star by the time of Hard Target, which meant that even with Woo's presence, he was the one with the drawing power. That could have created an imbalance, but there's something immediately harmonious about the way the pair work together in the finished product. Van Damme fits right into Woo's over-the-top action style and his dramatic, sometimes overwrought way of staging. It served Woo well that he'd landed an action star who both never shied from stunt work and seemed to be made of elastic, able to leap and kick in ways that his peers on the American action scene often simply could not. And it served Van Damme well to have a director who never wanted to rein him in, who wanted to spotlight every little detail of his star's abilities. That means that, while the moments between the action aren't always the most compelling, you're always just waiting for Van Damme to come to life, and that makes the film very watchable and very entertaining. 

Then there's the other major character in Hard Target: the city of New Orleans. It makes sense that Woo would be drawn to this place. Like his Hong Kong home, it's a port city and cultural melting pot with a distinctive personality, full of strange detours and visually dynamic sights. It has the feeling of being a place where just about anything could happen, which of course gives the director the opportunity to make just about anything happen. There's no doubt a heightened, exaggerated reality is at work in the film, but when Woo goes to work, you get the sense that New Orleans, like Hong Kong, is an almost magical space where just about any crazy thing could happen. 

And yes, crazy things do happen. Hard Target contains two of the most memorable (and meme-able) moments of weird action movie bravado in Woo's entire career, moments you've seen even if you've never actually seen the movie. This is the film that gave us the gif of Wilford Brimley riding a horse away from an exploding building, for example, as well as the film that gave us Van Damme knocking a snake unconscious with a single punch. Even beyond that, it features Van Damme surfing atop a moving motorcycle, a climactic gunfight in a Mardi Gras float warehouse, and of course, some of Van Damme's highest and most improbable kicks, all delivered in Woo's slow-motion-laden, stylized way. It's not necessarily a masterpiece by John Woo standards, but it is a thoroughly entertaining action extravaganza, and 30 years later, that still holds true.

Hard Target is now available from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

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