For 20 years and 22 films, Hong Kong director John Woo has been the driving force in film on the Pacific Rim. It took the international success of The Killer, Woo's 1989 masterpiece of operatic violence, to make Hollywood see his movies as more than chop-socky. Hard Target, Woo's American debut, is saddled with a star — the Belgium-born Jean-Claude Van Damme — who wants to be Ah-nuld, a script that feeds him clunky one-liners and a misguided desire to be ingratiating.
These are Hollywood faults, every one, and few of them really matter. Hard Target proves that John Woo is the hottest name in action anywhere. Woo doesn't just direct action — he abstracts it, poeticizes it, explodes its boundaries and breaks it into dazzling new forms. Actors kick, punch, tumble, stab and shoot with a balletic elegance that stems from Woo's training in dance and the martial arts.
Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, a merchant sailor in New Orleans who gets suckered into helping pretty Nat Binder (Yancy Butler) find her missing dad. "Your father named you after a bug?" asks Chance in one of those Schwarzenegger-type cracks. Almost as grating as the forced humor is Butler's flat line delivery, which sounds dubbed.
Things pick up when it's discovered that Nat's dad is the victim of Emil Fouchon (slimy Lance Henriksen) and Pik Van Cleaf (an even slimier Arnold Vosloo), two mercenaries who run a hunting service for millionaires eager to stalk human prey. Screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer (Darkman) lifts the plot from the 1932 classic Most Dangerous Game and adds a new wrinkle by making the quarry homeless combat veterans. The sociology is bogus, but Woo uses it to launch a tremendously exciting hunt as the stalkers pursue Chance through the streets, bayous and warehouses of the Big Easy, evocatively shot by Russell Carpenter.
Even when the acting is hammy, notably Wilford Brimley's turn as Chance's Cajun uncle, Woo stages every fight with hypnotic grace. Ironically, he had to tone down a scene involving a severed ear to avoid an NC-17 rating, though Reservoir Dogs (with an ear scene to which Woo was paying homage) received an R. There are dangerous games in Hollywood that even Woo has yet to master.