There's one in every John Woo production, a sequence of such intoxicating, delirious violence, with bullets and bodies dancing around in feverish combination, that you almost cannot comprehend, let alone believe, what you are seeing. When it comes to putting large-scale, explosive action on film, Woo is the new gold standard.
And action is what he's been directing in Hong Kong, where enormously popular Chinese-language films like "Hard Boiled," "The Killer" and "A Better Tomorrow" have helped him to gain a reputation so considerable that when "Hard Target" (citywide) was recently screened to mayhem aficionados, his name got a noticeably bigger round of applause than kick-happy star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
"Hard Target" is Woo's 23rd film but also something new: his first English-language Hollywood production. This much-anticipated melding of East and West was no simple thing, as the film's seven trips to the MPAA before it managed to eek out an R rating (for a great amount of violence and for language) will attest.
And though it has its share of boggling action sequences and will serve as an acceptable introduction to domestic fans not familiar with Woo's work, "Hard Target" is an awkward mixture, not on the level of the director's best work, and leaves open the question of how well his style can adapt to Hollywood.
Certainly Woo has had no difficulty bringing over his trademark visual apparatus intact. Set in New Orleans, not Hong Kong, "Hard Target" is nevertheless filled with most of the director's favorite things: black-helmeted motorcycle riders, fiery explosions, symbolic doves, shattered glass and loving shots of larger-than-life rifles and handguns.
Woo's particular brand of idiosyncratic sentimentality, however, is largely absent (a victim, apparently, of the testing process), as is Chow Yun-fat, the star of all of Woo's most recent films and the director's alter ego. Van Damme, the erstwhile "Muscles From Brussles," turns out to be an insufficient replacement, woodenly stymieing all of Woo's persistent attempts to mythologize him via careful use of slow-motion photography.
Also, the fact that Van Damme's weapons of choice are lethal karate kicks gives this picture an uncomfortably hard edge that is unusual for Woo. Though victims are machine-gunned by the gross in his films, sheer numbers give their deaths a balletic, almost fairy-tale grace. By contrast, the violence here is initially up close and personal. Perhaps that's what American audiences expect, but it is unpleasant nevertheless.
It all starts with Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme) minding his own business in a greasy spoon when he notices innocent Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler) attracting the wrong kind of attention. She is in town looking for her dad, a combat veteran down on his luck. Chance shows no interest in her quest until, in a typically cockeyed plot twist, he turns out to need some money to pay his union dues. Really.
What Chance and Nat stumble upon is a knockoff of "The Most Dangerous Game," a well-funded operation in which wealthy men stalk the human animal. Running things is Emil Fouchon (the reliably nefarious Lance Henriksen), a droll sort who believes "it has always been the privilege of the few to hunt the many." Just to make things more sporting, victims are selected from down-on-their-luck combat veterans, but once Chance gets involved, the challenge level gets considerably higher.
Though this scenario (written by Chuck Pfarrer) is not noticeably complex, fully half of "Hard Target" is taken up laboriously setting it in motion and stolidly demonstrating Van Damme's martial arts prowess.
When the second half kicks in, so to speak, Woo partisans will finally be on familiar ground. A kinetic shootout on a bridge becomes a chase through the bayous to a Mardi Gras warehouse/graveyard, the setting for (at last) one of the director's dazzling, can-you-top-this roller coaster sequences, made with so much panache that fans will be tempted to forgive the false starts that came before. Or if not quite that, to at least suspend judgment till John Woo's next crack at the Hollywood machine comes around.
Jean-Claude Van Damme: Chance Boudreaux
Lance Henriksen: Fouchon
Yancy Butler: Natasha Binder
Arnold Vosloo: Van Cleaf
Wilford Brimley: Douvee
An Alphaville/Renaissance production, released by Universal Pictures. Director John Woo. Producers James Jacks, Sean Daniel. Executive producers Moshe Diamant, Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert. Screenplay Chuck Pfarrer. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter. Editor Bob Murawski. Costumes Karyn Wagner. Music Graeme Revell. Production design Phil Dagort. Art director Philip Messina. Set decorator Michele Poulik. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (for a great amount of violence and for language).