Picks and Pans Review: Hard Target
Like a good, old-fashioned Western, this is a skirmish-a-minute action outing with memorable villains, Olympic-caliber stunt work, lots of local color and a classically vapid leading lady. The film is also, however, humorless and sadistic. And plausibility isn't often in sight, what with flying rattlesnakes, hired guns who can't hit a stationary target at two feet and Van Damme's flashing back to events he never saw in the first place.
Van Damme plays an unemployed merchant seaman who helps Butler look for her father, a homeless combat vet who has disappeared in New Orleans. They run afoul of a group of crooks serving as brokers for hunters who want to stalk human prey, at $500,000 a head. The granite-faced Henriksen is the main bad guy, assisted by Vosloo, whose menacing look evokes the early Jack Palance. Director John Woo, a star of the Hong Kong action-film circuit, is not exactly a master of subtlety—one of his main credits is Bullet In the Head. He does try to flesh out Van Damme a bit, though, making him enough of a sensitive New Age guy to even cry. But Jean-Claude is still no Belgian waffler. Why waste time on emotion when a swift kick to the head will do?
Van Damme has only one expression: fierce. That still puts him one expression up on Butler, who is no less mechanical as a grieving daughter in Hard Target than she was as a cyborg cop in Mann & Machine. She even has trouble making a line such as "He's gonna be all right" sound natural. Though Kasi Lemmons makes a sympathetic cop and Willie Carpenter suggests Bill Cosby gone serious as one of Henriksen's dragooned trophies-in-waiting, the supporting casting is unimaginative. Wilford Brimley, who has apparently decided that the right thing to do is not gobble oatmeal but scarf up as many marginal codger roles as possible, is Van Damme's rascally moonshiner uncle.
Second-unit director Billy Burton and Van Damme's stunt double, Mark Stefanich, deserve higher billing. They make all the chases and punchkickfests so slick and satisfying that the movie's defects are obscured. You won't be proud of yourself for it, but you'll cheer Van Damme and Butler on. (R)