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Hard Target is a 1993 American action film directed by Chinese director John Woo. The film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Chance Boudreaux, an out-of-work Cajun merchant seaman who saves a young woman, Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler), from a gang of thugs in New Orleansmarker. Chance learns that Binder is searching for her missing father (Chuck Pfarrer), and agrees to aid Binder in her search. Boudreaux and Binder soon learn that Binder's father has died at the hands of wealthy sportsman Emil Fouchon who hunts homeless men as a form of recreation.

Hard Target was John Woo's first American film and was also the first major Hollywood film made by a Chinese director. Universal Pictures was nervous on having Woo direct a feature, and sent in director Sam Raimi to look over the film's production and to take Woo's place as director if he were to fail. Woo went through several scripts finding mostly martial arts films which he wasn't interested in. After deciding on Chuck Pfarrer's script for Hard Target, Woo wanted to have actor Kurt Russell in the lead role, but found Russell too busy with other projects. Woo then went with Universal's initial choice of having Jean-Claude Van Damme star. Woo got along with Van Damme during filming and raised the amount of action in the film as he knew that Van Damme was up for it.

After 65 days of filming in New Orleans, Woo had trouble with the Motion Picture Association of America to secure the R rating that Universal wanted. Woo made dozens of cuts to the film until the MPAA allowed it an R rating. On its initial release, Hard Target was a financial success but received poor reviews film critics. Critics found Hard Target to have good action scenes but noted the weak script and poor quality acting from Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Plot

In New Orleansmarker, a homeless veteran named Douglas Binder (Chuck Pfarrer) runs through the dark streets of the city fleeing from a group of mercenaries led by Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen). With hunter Fouchon and his henchman Stephan (Sven-Ole Thorsen) and Peterson (Jules Sylvester) in pursuit, Binder reaches the docks by the river where he is suddenly shot and killed by a businessman named Mr. Lopaki (Bob Apisa) who had paid $500,000 for the opportunity to hunt a human. Fouchon's lieutenant Pik van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo) leans over the dead man and slices off his belt, which contains the money Binder would have won if he eluded the hunters. The next day, Binder's daughter Natasha (Yancy Butler) drives into a rough area of New Orleans to search for her estranged father and is attacked by a group of thugs. A homeless man saves her by defeating the thugs with his martial arts prowess. Natasha later finds the homeless man who is introduced as Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and asks for his help in searching for her father. Chance is initially hesitant to involve himself, but as his merchant seaman union dues are in arrears he reluctantly allows Natasha to hire him as her guide and bodyguard during her search. Meanwhile, Chance's homeless friend Elijah Roper is also hunted and killed by Fouchon's hunting party after trying to get help from a pedestrian (Ted Raimi) to no avail.

Natasha discovers that her father was living homeless in the New Orleans waterfront area and that he did work for a seedy recruiter named Randal (Eliott Keener). Randal has been secretly supplying homeless men with war experience and no family ties for Fouchon to hunt. When Natasha questions Randal in his office, the recruiter avoids her questions as the leering Van Cleaf watches them. New Orleans police then inform her that Natasha's father's charred body was discovered in a derelict house that went up in flames. Although his death was ruled accidental, Chance searches the smoldering ruins and finds Binder's dog tag that has been pierced by a projectile. Van Cleaf's thugs ambush Chance and beat him unconscious. When Chance recovers, he tells the police about the dog tag, prompting the investigating officer Mitchell (Kasi Lemmons) to order a new autopsy. Unfortunately, the medical examiner is on Fouchon's payroll and tips him off about the investigation.

Van Cleaf and Fouchon decide to relocate their hunting business and begin eliminating "loose ends", including the medical examiner and Randal who they murder outside his office. Mitchell, Nat and Chance arrive moments later and are ambushed by Van Cleaf and several of his men. During the shootout Mitchell is shot and killed, while Chance and Nat narrowly escape. As Fouchon and Van Cleaf assemble their mercenary team, Chance leads Natasha to his uncle Douvee's (Wilford Brimley) house deep in the bayou. Chance kills the mercenary gunman one by one, including Van Cleaf. In the end, only, Fouchon is left, but he holds Chance at bay by taking Natasha hostage. Chance charges and attacks him with a flurry of blows and then detonates a grenade, killing him.

Cast

  • Jean-Claude Van Damme as Chance Boudreaux: An out of work Cajun merchant. After Boudreaux saves Natasha Binder, he is hired by her to help search for her missing father.
  • Lance Henriksen as Emil Fouchon: A wealthy sportsman who hunts homeless men as a form of recreation. After finding that he is being investigated by Chance and Natasha, Fouchon sends out his gang led by Pick Van Cleaf to ambush them.
  • Arnold Vosloo as Pick Van Cleaf: Van Cleaf is a collaborator of Fouchon who takes part in his sport of hunting men. He leads the crew of men who are sent out to murder Chance and Natasha. Van Cleaf's surname is a reference to actor Lee Van Cleef.
  • Yancy Butler as Natasha "Nat" Binder: A young women who comes to New Orleans to search for her father who she hasn't seen since she was seven years old. When Natasha is attacked by thugs, she is saved by Chance Boudreaux who agrees to help her find him.
  • Kasi Lemmons as Carmine Mitchell: A detective at the police station who works in the office while the police are on strike. Mitchell helps Natasha by ordering another autopsy when they show her the pierced dog tags that her father had.
  • Chuck Pfarrer as Douglas Binder: The father of Natasha who has moved to New Orleans. After Natasha finds that three weeks have passed since she has heard from her father, she goes to New Orleans to find that he has been homeless and has been murdered by Emil Fouchon's crew.
  • Wilford Brimley as Uncle Douvee: Uncle Douvee is Chance Boudreaux's uncle who lives deep in the Bayou. Chance and Natasha take shelter at his home as well as have him help during the film's final shoot out.


Production

Development

After making Hard Boiled in Hong Kongmarker, director John Woo decided to take an offer to work in the United Statesmarker, where he would find himself happier as a filmmaker with a preferable work pace and working with more reasonable hours. Woo was first offered this job in the United Statesmarker from Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock after he had seen Woo's film The Killer. Universal was not eager to have Woo direct an entire feature and only agreed after what producer James Jacks called a "difficult period of convincing". Universal was worried about having an Asian director on set who had limited command of English on a large scale project. They hired American director Sam Raimi to oversee the film's production and to have him on standby if Woo was not able to fulfill his role as a director. Raimi was very excited to work with Woo as he was fan of his Hong Kong films. Raimi was also confident in Woo's directorial skills, stating that "Woo at 70% is still going to blow away most American action directors working at 100%."

On his arrival in the United Statesmarker, Woo went through several scripts before deciding on Hard Target. Describing the scripts he received, Woo stated that "Some of them were good - some of them were very good - but the rest were simply martial-arts movies and I told producers that I had no interest in doing those kinds of films anymore. I'd done a lot of them already". One of the scripts offered to Woo at this period was for Face/Off, which he turned down at the time as Woo was turned off by the science fiction setting the script had. Woo read Chuck Pfarrer's script for Hard Target appreciating that it was a "simple but powerful story, with a lot of feeling underneath. For a good action film you need a solid structure. Chuck gave me that". Woo also stated that the story is "less John Woo" but the visual aspect would be "very John Woo". Pfarrer's script is an uncredited variation of the short story The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell.

Pre-production

Universal Pictures saw Hard Target as a potential vehicle for actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme had already been a huge fan of Woo's films and arranged to meet with him in Hong Kongmarker where the two got along despite both Woo and Van Damme's difficulty with their English. Woo originally wanted actor Kurt Russell for the lead role, but found Russell to be booked for two years with other film projects. On working with Van Damme, Woo stated that he was "sure of [my own] abilities and I know how to make an actor look good on screen, make him look like a hero. I thought I could do the same for Van Damme". Despite early misgivings of working with Van Damme, Woo changed many action scenes in the film to make them more spectacular on finding that Van Damme was up for it. While working with Van Damme, Woo wrote that Van Damme had "a pretty big ego, but he's still professional and always tries to do a good job." Actress Yancy Butler was cast as Natasha Binder where she made her feature film debut. This role would lead Butler to other starring roles in action films such as Drop Zone (1994) and Fast Money (1995). Actor Lance Henriksen accepted the role of Emil Fouchon stating he was great fan of Woo, noting that his earlier films "were so creative, so balletic, and had this incredible philosophy in them. The violence was only a container for the philosophy".

Filming

Hard Target was shot on location in New Orleansmarker, including sequences shot in the French Quartermarker. Hard Target was put on a tight schedule by Universal that allowed only 65 days of shooting time. This put a lot of pressure on Woo.Woo was also pressured by Universal to tone-down the violence and body count that they had seen in his Hong Kong films. As Woo had not mastered the English language yet, it took time for the cast and crew to get used to working with him. When Woo could not explain what he wanted with a shot to cinematographer Russell Carpenter, he would resort to simple statements such as "this will be the Sam Peckinpah shot" to get his message across to Carpenter. Actor Lance Henriksen recalled that it was a gradual process that lead everyone involved to start seeing the film as a John Woo film rather than a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Producer James Jacks recalled that Woo was not "the most powerful person on the set but as far as I was concerned, he was certainly the most respected".

The weapon fire on the set was considered dangerous, which led the crew to build a new bulletproof plexiglas shield that could be bolted to the camera. This shield was useful particularly for one sequence in Hard Target where Van Damme empties a clip of ammo into the camera. These camera dollies were nicknamed by the crew as "the Woo-Woo Choo-Choo". Russell Carpenter found difficulty in filming the huge gunfight scenes. Carpenter specifically noted the Mardi Gras parade warehouse by recollecting that "just the lighting for a space like that, with all those strange shapes and shadows was difficult enough, but John then added the further complication of wanting the scene shot from several angles at once — often with more than one of the cameras moving". Producer James Jacks supported this style of filming finding it the most economical way to shoot these types of action scenes.

Post-production

The film was edited by Bob Murawski on the set using a state-of-the-art computerized editing unit that allows the user to edit the film as the movie was being shot. The film was then scored by Graeme Revell who utilized Kodo drummers from Japanmarker. Woo was contractually obligated to release a R rating by Universal Pictures. When submitting the film to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), it was judged as too violent and intense for an R rating and received an NC-17 rating. Woo re-edited the film six times for the MPAA as they never indicated what specific scenes they found objectionable. During this editing period, Van Damme went with his own editor to make his own edit of the film. Van Damme's version excises whole characters to insert more scenes and close-ups of his character Chance. When asked about this edit, Van Damme replied that "People pay their money to see me, not to see Lance Henriksen". The MPAA accepted the film after Woo had made 20 cuts to the film. Scenes cut include the opening chase sequence and the Mardi Gras warehouse sequence. A non-action scene that is cut from the film is a love scene between Chance and Natasha.

Release

Hard Target was tentatively scheduled to open in July 1993. Hard Target was released August 20, 1993 in the United States making it the first film by an Asian director to be released by a Hollywood studio. Hard Target did well in the box office, being the second highest grossing film release of the week at the American box office on its initial release. Hard Target also became the 49th highest grossing film in the United States in 1993. Hard Target made a domestic profit of over $32,000,000 and a worldwide profit of over $74,000,000.

Critical reception

Hard Target received mixed reviews on its initial release praising the film's action scenes but noting the poor story and Jean-Claude Van Damme's acting abilities. On the film review television show Siskel & Ebert, Roger Ebert stated that Hard Target is "not very smart and it's not very original, but it is well made on a technical level. The stunts are impressive...as an action picture, it's well made, but it never becomes more than competent action and I just can't recommend it for that". Gene Siskel also gave the film a thumbs down on the show stating that "John Woo is a good filmmaker... Van Damme is very wooden...You notice the style in the film because there is not much substance". Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote that "Van Damme has still not broken the habit of his own blank-faced posturing, although Mr. Woo films him in the most aggrandizing style imaginable". In Variety, Emanuel Levy wrote that Hard Target was "a briskly vigorous, occasionally brilliant actioner starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. However, hampered by a B-script with flat, standard characters, and subjected to repeated editing of the violent sequences to win an R rating, pic doesn't bear the unique vision on display in Woo's recent "The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled." Van Damme and the director's reputation should ensure initial commercial kick on the way to solid if not spectacular box office". Desson Thompson of The Washington Post wrote that "When Van Damme isn't duking it out with the English language, scriptwriter Chuck Pfarrer is filling Henriksen's mouth with villainous pseudo-profundities. Even in a second-rate action picture like this, and despite Henriksen's commendable efforts, they're painful to listen to...Woo's creative presence is practically stifled. There are some flashes of his deliriously wild style—a slow-motion moment here, a well-chosen freeze-frame there. He also introduces American audiences to his taste for unique motorcycle stunts and very, very loud car explosions. But these Wooisms are disappointingly minimal". Lance Henriksen received a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Emil Fouchon in the film. In 1997, Woo looked back on Hard Target stating that it was "...in some ways, quite a troublesome movie to make, but I'm rather happy with the way the action scenes turned out".

Home media

Hard Target was released on Laserdisc and VHS in 1994. In the United States, the film was the 14th highest selling laserdisc and the 46th most rented VHS film of 1994. Hard Target was releaed on DVD for Region 1 on July 1, 1998. A Region 2 DVD of the film was released on March 20, 2000. The American DVD has also been released with DVD bundle packs, that include other films starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. These DVDs included Hard Target, as well as Timecop, Street Fighter, Lionheart, Sudden Death and The Quest.

An uncut copy of the film has not been released officially, but has been found as a bootleg. This copy has a poor-quality videocassette dub and has a burned-in time code in the corner indicating that the film was not meant for public viewing.

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