Color, 1993, 99/96m.
Directed by John Woo
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, Arnold Vosloo, Kasi Lemmons, Wilford Brimley
Koch Media (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Universal (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Universal (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
It goes without saying that any film featuring Wilford Brimley as a feisty Cajun yelping on horseback while wielding a bow and arrow would have to qualify as an essential pop culture landmark of the 1990s, but the wonderfully ridiculous Hard Target has plenty of other high-octane pleasures in store, too. Jean-Claude Van Damme punching out a rattlesnake? Check. Lance Henriksen chomping up scenery left and right as a heartless hunter of human prey? Definitely. Lots of trademark John Woo explosions and flying birds? You bet.
In fact, this Universal production marked Woo's cinematic debut in America after the previous year's smash success of Hard Boiled, and here he substitutes his usual leading man Chow Yun-Fat for Van Damme as Chance Boudreaux, an unemployed tough guy and former Marine in New Orleans who comes to the rescue of a young woman, Natasha (Butler), who's attacked by some street thugs. As it turns out, Natasha is looking for her father, seen being hunted down and brutally killed with metal arrows by assassins on motorcycles in the opening scene. This hunting operation is run by Emil Fouchon (Henriksen), who charges big money by traveling the globe with his men to give thrill seekers the chance to hunt down and kill homeless combat veterans. When Chance's best friend becomes the next target for Emil's gang, he and Natasha are thrown into a bullet-spraying series of confrontations culminating in a fiery, operatic showdown in a Mardi Gras warehouse.
After the relentless action frenzy seen in Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled, both of which were shown unrated in the United States, it isn't too surprising that Hard Target ran into major problems with the MPAA and had to be submitted six times, ultimately suffering a drastic number of cuts before opening in theaters. (More on that in a minute.) Some Woo fans were a little baffled by the film, which displays some of his trademark flourishes (frequent dissolves, slow motion, etc.) but also feels an awful lot like a Cannon Films production, thanks in no small part to the presence of Van Damme, the defunct studio's last major star. Of course, for many viewers the Cannon resemblance is actually a good thing as it means plenty of bizarre touches along the way; in fact, this bears a more than passing resemblance to a real Cannon film and one of the best Michael Dudikoff titles, 1986's Avenging Force, which shares the same location and a very similar storyline also derived from The Most Dangerous Game. What sets this film apart, of course, is the action scenes, which are executed with Woo's energetic flair, something seen all too rarely in his other American output apart from the gloriously nutty Face/Off. When seen outside its neutered R-rated form, the half-hour warehouse finale is really a thing of beauty with an escalating parade of gunfights, beatings, and fire gags, easily one of the decade's worthiest action highlights. The big motorcycle/car chase at the film's midpoint is no slouch, either, delivering some great, painful-looking stunts that remind us how much we've lost in many CGI-oriented action films.
So, back to that whole problem getting an R rating. At least five different versions of Hard Target exist in varying degrees of quality, and the reasons for that are a little hazy. Director Sam Raimi, who had experience with Universal on Army of Darkness (a wild case study in multiple versions unto itself) and Darkman, was brought in as a production overseer, also serving as an executive producer alongside his usual collaborator, Robert G. Tapert; his usual editor, Bob Murawski (future head of Grindhouse Releasing), cut this film as well. The Raimi influence can be felt several times throughout the film, particularly a bullet gag borrowed from Dario Argento's Opera, but nowhere more than the ultimate fate of the film's villain, a cheeky bit of violent comedy that fits his aesthetic perfectly. Oddly, this sequence is nowhere to be seen in what is now referred to as the film's "director's cut," a 116-minute rough edit used for test screenings without a finished score (which was ultimately provided by Graeme Revell with Kodo). This version, which circulated as a bootleg on VHS and can still be found among trading circles, has never existed in good quality on video and, due to its temp track and unpolished editing in many scenes, may never see the light of day as a legitimate release. Most of the additional footage is inconsequential, particularly a kinda-sorta love scene that was wisely dropped; while fans expected to see an additional 20 minutes of brutal mayhem, what they mainly got was a lot more yapping. There is some extra violence though, including more bloody squibs and some extra explosions, as well as a close up of the earlobe-slicing scene, which remains implied rather than explicitly seen in all commercial versions of the film. Also present was a disturbing TV montage of real-life animal hunting, a pretty gut-churning mondo touch that clashed with the escapist tone of the rest of the film. Much rarer than this but sought by some completists is a 128-minute rough assembly of the film, which is basically padded with lots of shot extensions and very little of actual value.
Obviously the 96-minute cut of Hard Target released in America is the weakest of all theatrical options (though still preferable to the TV version, which reedits the film and substitutes some alternate and additional shots to cover up the cinematic surgery). The US cut loses a significant amount of visceral impact especially during the opening scene and the big showdown at the end, and that has remained the de facto DVD version in many countries. However, in Europe a longer unrated cut with three and a half extra minutes of violence has now become the standard and is available in two separate Blu-ray editions released in 2013.
The more lavish option is the first one out of the gate from Germany's Koch Media, containing both the unrated European and R-rated American cuts. While we can dream that someday this film will get the same treatment as that company's unsurpassed love letter to Army of Darkness, this release is still a major improvement over its predecessors and, most importantly, looks absolutely gorgeous. Universal releases in the '90s looked a little odd in theaters with a sometimes gauzy, tangerine cast in most prints (and DVD releases), but the HD transfer here looks exceptionally sharp and with far more pleasing, natural hues. It's definitely leagues beyond the often unwatchable standard set by many Universal catalog Blu-rays in the US where disasters like Tremors, Sixteen Candles, and Scent of a Woman have sadly become the norm. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is also spectacular, with natural channel separation and some terrific surround effects in all of the action scenes. Audio is presented in both English and German, with optional subtitles in both languages also offered. Apart from the two cuts, extras include a stills gallery, both the American and German trailers, and an audio commentary by Woo biographer Thomas Gaschler, which is sadly not English friendly. The more stripped-down UK Blu-ray contains a bare bones presentation of the unrated main feature from the same master, though it does have more language options with dubs in French, Italian, German, and Castilian and Latin Spanish.
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Reviewed on August 14, 2013.