One of the few things I don’t like about being a movie critic is having to sit through so many fifth-rate action films. It’s not that I’m above enjoying a bit of the old ultraviolence. It’s that the relentless ”explosiveness” and grinding pulp sadism of your average Steven Seagal potboiler is enough to leave me dazed, exhausted, numb. At their worst, these movies are a degradation of what action can be.
Now, though, my prayers have been answered. In Hard Target, the Belgian kickboxing star Jean-Claude Van Damme teams up with the celebrated Hong Kong action director John Woo to produce something sleek, bloody, and exciting: an action film that rediscovers the lyricism of violence. Woo, a thrillingly kinesthetic pop stylist, is heir to a generation of balletic action poets. In his work, one catches flagrant visual echoes of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Walter Hill (The Warriors), of Bruce Lee flicks and samurai flicks, of De Palma and Scorsese and Friedkin, of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, and of the two most brilliant action spectacles of our time: George Miller’s smashingly nihilistic Mad Max and The Road Warrior.
Woo, in other words, borrows from the best. Yet he’s more than a clever rip-off artist. What he brings to the genre is a unique blend of speed and existential lightness, a sense that what you’re watching is at once exquisitely choreographed and exquisitely random. In a Woo action sequence, the audience is kept aware of everything that’s going on. A gun is fired, and you see where each bullet lands; during an impromptu hand-to-hand brawl, the camera lingers hypnotically over every thrust and parry, every lightning kick to the head. Woo, employing a supercharged blend of slow motion and fast editing, breaks a scene down into hard, atomic kernels of mayhem. Each kernel leads to another, then another, the violence moving forward in a chain reaction — but cleanly — until it takes on a hyperactive life of its own.
In Hard Target, Van Damme, hair grown out into flowing Caucasian Jheri curls, is a New Orleans merchant sailor who is drawn into battle against a demonic contractor (Lance Henriksen, all sinewy malice). For half a million dollars, the evil slimedog offers rich decadents the chance to lead a deadly safari. The prey: homeless veterans. This umpteenth variation on The Most Dangerous Game has a comic-book creepiness. And Woo, working with a bigger budget than usual, indulges himself spectacularly. The first fight scene — Van Damme rescues a woman (Yancy Butler) whose father was one of the victims — is executed with the crack timing of a rock and roll number. As the movie goes on, Van Damme leaps and bounds, twirls through fire, and rides a motorcycle standing up — and the stunts are staged with such loving precision that we’re gripped by every high-flying moment. Woo discovers a new intimacy in action motifs; the slo-mo shots of spent cartridges popping out of guns are like a post-orgasmic release.
Hard Target doesn’t have the themes of loyalty and criminal/cop bonding that have marked such Woo films as The Killer and Hard Boiled. It’s a Van Damme picture at heart: The plot is really just there to take up space between action scenes. To me, though, that fits the Woo aesthetic just fine. He has never been a particularly deft storyteller; his Hong Kong films are at once sloppy and dense — knotty tangles of B-movie plotting. By the time Hard Target reaches its amazing climax, set in a warehouse stocked with surreal Mardi Gras floats, the film has become an incendiary action orgy, as joyously excessive as the grand finale in a fireworks show. Woo puts the thrill back into getting blown away. B+