Hard to Believe

The bad guys have Jean-Claude Van Damme cornered in an abandoned warehouse packed with surreal floats from bygone Mardi Gras parades. He's outnumbered twenty to one. They have motorcycles, automatic rifles, grenade launchers -- you name it. All he's got is an old pump shotgun. Blam! Make that nineteen to one. Crash! Eighteen. Oops -- seventeen. Well, you get the picture.

Welcome to the world of John Woo, ballyhooed Hong Kong action-movie king. Woo's admirers include Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, and he's currently working on a project scripted especially for him by Quentin Reservoir Dogs Tarantino. Hard Target is his American debut, and is being monitored much more closely by the Hollywood power elite than your generic Van Damme shoot-'em-up.

Had the Hollywood money men tracking Woo's stateside appeal attended a recent screening, they might have eavesdropped on an exchange that offered some useful insights into the film:

"All those guys with all those guns and bullets, and not one of them hit him. Come on," said a middle-age man.

"He got hit once," his female companion responded.
"He did not."
"Are you sure? I thought he got shot at least once."
"I don't think he got shot."
"But he was limping, right?"
"He was limping, but it was from something else."
"I thought it was from one of those guys with the machine guns."

"Remember the part where he shoots the guy with the shotgun and the thing explodes and he gets blown 40 feet through the air and he does the flip over the flaming barrel rolling at him and he lands on his feet?"

"Yeah."
"That's where he hurt his leg. I think."
That's the thing about action movies. The good ones such as (The Fugitive) let you feel like the hero's survival and ultimate victory are a result of some important character trait A resourcefulness, strength, intelligence. Hard Target's protagonist, Chance Boudreaux, survives because he's damn lucky. Dozens of automatic weapons bark at him from close range and succeed only in shattering every pane of glass within miles. Meanwhile, the star returns fire while running for his life and every slug connects. After a while even the underage kids who sneaked into the theater find themselves shaking their heads in disbelief.

Especially with an actor of such dubious abilities as Van Damme in the lead. As ex-Special Forces vet Boudreaux, Van Damme is part Bruce Lee, part Rambo. He survives fusillades of gunfire, bullets rain down on him like monsoons, and he barely gets scratched. Meanwhile he dispatches dozens of bad guys, and, in addition to hot lead, dodges quivers full of arrows, a handful of grenades, flames -- even a rattlesnake. Sometimes he kicks the villains before he shoots them; other times he shoots them before he kicks them. And in one memorable scene, the Muscles from Brussels rides a speeding motorcycle like a surfboard, blasts away at an oncoming 4X4 truck with both hands, leaps high into the air as the vehicles collide, and lands on his feet, pistols blazing.

It's a stunt that epitomizes the whole movie, at once exhilarating and ridiculous. That's typical Woo, the man the Village Voice called "a virtuoso action director" and the New York Times lauded for his ability to "turn the camera into the next best thing to a lethal weapon." But based on the Hard evidence, Woo goes through nearly as many action-movie cliches as he does blanks and capsules of fake blood.

It makes for a bizarre mixture. Part of you wants to cheer on the good guy, part of you wants to holler at the screen for asking you to believe anyone could pull off these shenanigans.

Chance Boudreaux is a homeless, penniless vet. Of course, he's also a martial arts expert in peak physical condition with no mental illness or substance-abuse problems. So much for realism. Boudreaux is the kind of standup guy who risks his neck to save a dame from a band of muggers, especially if it means drop-kicking one of them through a plate glass picture window. (Hard Target pushes the envelope in the bad-guys-through-glass category.) The lady has come to town to search for her father, also a homeless vet, who hasn't been answering her correspondence. Her encounter with the muggers convinces her she needs a resourceful guide through the mean streets and back alleys of New Orleans's treacherous French Quarter, so she takes a chance on Boudreaux.

The bulging Belgian's Cajun accent provokes unintended laughs. You haven't lived until you've heard him deliver lines such as, "You mek shore ah said a beeg hallo," and "Ah wuss halping hair fahnd hair deddy."

They never do fahnd hair deddy, just his charred remains. The cops want to write it off as another homeless guy killed in a fire in an abandoned building, but both grieving daughter and Cajun vet suspect foul play. Together they uncover a nefarious ring of ex-mercenaries who hunt indigent Vietnam vets for sport and profit.

Woo dug himself a deep hole with the casting of Van Damme. The director's best work in Hong Kong features slick, charismatic acting by Chow Yun-Fat, a hero with more brains than brawn. The difference between the two actors is like the difference between Bogart and Schwarzenegger. And it almost feels as if Woo struggled to wedge in as many opportunities for Van Damme to exhibit his martial arts prowess as possible. Screenwriter Chuck (Navy SEALS) Pfarrer's stoopid dialogue and far-fetched plot, which is basically a dumbed-down remake of 1932's The Most Dangerous Game, don't help matters any.

But the China-born exponent of romantic violence gets a few things right. For starters, he has good villains. Not as good as, say, John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire, but far more interesting and effortlessly evil than one expects of the genre. Lance Henriksen is appropriately businesslike, amoral, and sadistic as the head baddie, and Arnold Vosloo conveys pure menace as his bloodthirsty but decorous henchman. Together they make a truly terrifying tandem; you'd root for Saddam Hussein against these two.

They do their dirty work while the hero fires guns and hurtles about. Van Damme and his stunt doubles are airborne long enough to qualify for frequent-flier discounts. To his credit, Woo keeps things moving at all costs. Subtlety? That's for wimps. A kick in the crotch isn't painful enough -- Woo's protagonist rams a motorcycle into a pursuer's family jewels. The director goes through almost as many camera angles as shell casings; MTV's pace feels sluggish by comparison.

The hunters are all rich white men who kill humans for sport, and their prey are desperate, homeless combat veterans willing to risk their lives for a remote shot at a $10,000 prize if they survive. It's not The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but the subtext of class conflict wends its way throughout the film in a much less obtrusive and more poignant fashion than it might have in some hack action director's hands.

Despite Woo's presence behind the camera, Hard Target is still very much a Van Damme movie, and as such it seems only fair to issue the following consumer alert: The hunky star doesn't disrobe until the final climactic gun battle, and then only to a sleeveless T-shirt and loose blue jeans. Consider yourselves forewarned, beefcake lovers.

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