Prompted by my recent Random Roles with Jean-Claude Van Damme I recently caught up with his 1993 vehicle Hard Target. Without having seen many of Van Damme's films I can say with one hundred percent certainty that is his best film. The film was seemingly designed as a test to see if John Woo's pop-operatic Sirk-meets-Peckinpah sensibility would translate to these shores. I think it's safe to say that he passed with flying colors.
For a John Woo movie Hard Target is pretty good. For a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie it's fucking transcendent. Woo can't turn a mulleted Van-Damme into Chow Yun Fat–I'm not sure even God is capable of that–but he can make him swagger with iconic cool. That's a sizable accomplishment. Woo's American career is characterized by an impressive upward arc from Hard Target to Broken Arrow to his American magnum opus Face Off and an equally steep downward arc, commercially at least, from Mission Impossible 2 to Windtalkers to Paycheck, which I haven't seen but certainly didn't wow critics or audiences.
With each early film the budgets, stars and box-office got bigger and bigger. In Hard Target Woo worked with Van Damme, who would later wrestle with professional setbacks and drug and alcohol problems, female lead Yancy Butler, who would also later wrestle with professional setbacks and drug and alcohol problems and Wilford Brimley, who is undoubtedly neck-deep in hookers, crystal meth, boxed wine and Quaker's oatmeal as I write this. Why? Cause it's the right thing to do and a tasty way to do it..
Hard Target has a great deal going for it, primarily Woo's rightfully vaunted sense of style and a wonderful supporting cast headlined by Lance Henrickson as a bad guy both principled and utterly hiss-worthy, future DTV Darkman Arnold Vosloo as his nefarious henchman and the aforementioned Brimley as a crazy-ass Cajun hillbilly.
But what struck me most vividly about Hard Target was how bluntly the film seems to foreshadow Hurricane Katrina. For the film is quite literally about class warfare on its most fundamental level. It takes place in a cruel, cruel New Orleans so riddled with horrifying social and economic inequities that the blood-thirsty rich pay big sums of money to hunt the most dangerous game of all: the American housecat. O.K, that's not at all true but whenever a character talks about hunting "The most dangerous game" I always hope against hope they're talking about something really mundane and ridiculous.
Actually the evil rich hunt homeless people, more specifically combat veterans. This is another plot twist that gives the film queasy contemporary resonance, the idea that the government does so little for the men and women willing to die in its name that accepting a money belt for ten thousand dollars in exchange for almost certain death begins to seem like a pretty O.K gamble.
A big part of what made Katrina so heartbreaking was that it seemed to reveal the tragic gulf between how we as Americans like to think of ourselves and how we actually are. As Hard Target casually attests, the inequities and long-festering social problems that defined Katrina had existed for decades, even centuries. It just took a horrific natural disaster followed by a political and bureaucratic one to bring all the hideous social ills raging just under the surface to a raging boil and then a devastating explosion.
In the hands of another filmmaker Hard Target could easily have been nothing more than a mediocre DTV action movie but Woo and his cast elevate it into something much more resonant and exciting. But history plays a part as well. The film's plot turns on a noble black friend of Van Damme's getting killed shortly after accepting the money belt of doom. It's a shameless, hoary old trope–the selfless suffering black friend whose death spurs the white action to unprecedented heights of heroism–but it works like gangbusters here.
Hard Target is all about the rich hunting the poor in its first two acts and the poor, or at least one very physically accomplished poor man, hunting the rich in its triumphant third act. Once the action moves from the mean streets of the city, Skinny Boy's old stomping grounds, to the bayou the Katrina connection becomes less pronounced but it lingers all the same. In Hard Target the poor are hunted and destroyed due to the rich's sadism and warped sense of sportsmanship. In the aftermath of Katrina the poor were left to fend for themselves due to gross incompetence and mismanagement but the end result was the same: a whole bunch of poor people dying unnecessarily.
The ghosts of Katrina haunt Hard Target just as the ghost of Iraq haunts most contemporary films about other wars and the ghosts of 9/11 continues to haunt movies about New York. Sometimes these ghosts lessen over time, sometimes they become more pronounced. I doubt anyone will see The Dark Knight this summer without feeling a little spooked.
The haunted quality of Hard Target ultimately works in the film's favor, lending a superior genre film an added level of social satire and a sharp political edge. Woo is a supremely meticulous and precise filmmaker with a strong moral sense. So I don't think the allegorical elements of Hard Target are accidental in the least. At the same time part of me just wanted to enjoy a film about a mulleted badass killing a bunch of motherfuckers in the bayou without being confronted by the specter of Hurricane Katrina.
Am I making too much out of a kick-ass genre movie? Does the presence of social and political ghosts generally aid or detract from your enjoyment of a film? Incidentally, now would probably be a good time to admit that from here on out I will only be writing about Van Damme. Accordingly, my recurring features now include My Year Of Van Damme, Better Van Damme Than Never, The Silly Little Van Damme Book Club, and the forthcoming I Watched Van Damme on Purpose. Dispatches from Direct-To-DVD Purgatory will be unchanged however.