There seem to be two distinct markers for the creative decline of the Hong Kong action cinema glory days that started in the mid-1980s: the handing over of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997 & the movement’s biggest directors transitioning into helming Hollywood blockbusters, also in the mid-1990s. Up until Alli presented Hard Boiled as a Movie of the Month selection I was only familiar with John Woo’s work after these two declines in quality. Titles like Face/Off & Mission: Impossible 2 have a kind of slickly-produced charm to them, but are nowhere near the quality of action spectacle offered in Woo’s Hong Kong heyday. The interesting thing about Hard Boiled, though, is that it finds John Woo on the cusp of both transitions. Hard Boiled may be the director’s most often-cited work from his Hong Kong glory years, but it arrived just before his transition into a Hollywood big shot, which would steer his career for the remainder of the 90s. This means it’s also his final contribution to Hong Kong cinema before the handover to mainland China after 50 years of British colonial rule, a transition many mark as a downfall for the region’s action cinema boom. His first foray into American action cinema kept the spirit of his Hong Kong years alive, though, so much so that I often get its title mixed up with Hard Boiled’s. Like so many Hong Kong directors gone mainstream, John Woo began his Hollywood career helming a Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle, this one titled Hard Target. Watching the film in retrospect, it’s initially difficult to see what Woo brings to the picture that you wouldn’t find with any nobody American director, but then the intense kineticism & absurdist tone of his Hong Kong work take over as it barrels towards a blissfully chaotic climax. This cusp before Woo’s creative decline, where he effectively goes hard, is possibly his greatest sweet spot.
Hard Target has more than an American sensibility & a recognizable action star going for it in the way of making Woo’s style palatable to me specifically; it’s also set in my home city. In the opening sequence a homeless man is being hunted with a crossbow in The French Quarter, eventually succumbing to the steel-tipped arrow on the banks of the Mississippi River. Some details in this sordid take on New Orleans are a little iffy, like everyone’s weirdly thick Southern accent (whereas local Y’at accents have a cadence all to their own) or that a man being hunted on Bourbon Street would ever be turned away for refuge, as those bars never really close in real life. By the time Wilford Brimley’s cartoon Cajun invades the screen, though, the discrepancies become highly entertaining instead of eyerollingly awkward. I also have to admit that the film’s overall estimation of New Orleans as a heartlessly hedonistic city that world allow rich white men to openly hunt the homeless in the streets for sport (in a modern retelling of “The Most Dangerous Game”) is harsh, but fair. The scenario that allows this absurd evil where it’s “the pleasure of the few to hunt the many” is a little oddly structured, as it’s a police strike that leaves the city temporarily lawless. You’d think corruption and collusion among the police force & the wealthy hegemony would drive the plot instead of this weird anti-union political bent, but there’s still some interesting class politics at work in the film all the same. In its most poignant moment, a hunted homeless man desperately pleads for help from Bourbon Street tourists, who coldly turn their backs on him as if he were begging for pocket change. Most of the film’s local flavor is used as a conveniently novel backdrop (majestically so in the case of a climactic shootout in a Mardi Gras parade float warehouse), one I’m always tickled to see onscreen. However, that tourist-begging sequence actually has a sting of truth to it as a jab to New Orleans’s uglier side as a hedonistic playground for tourists that doesn’t give a shit about its own ailing population.
Of course, for most American audiences (since, mathematically speaking, most Americans have never lived in New Orleans), the main window into Woo’s appeal offered in Hard Target was his handle on the action. Jean-Claude Van Damme is meant to hold our hand through this cultural exchange as our action hero, although Woo makes him just as (charmingly) goofy as Chow Yun-Fat’s jazz clarinet enthusiast appears to be in Hard Boiled. Contextualizing his Belgian accent as a result of being a Cajun drifter, JCVD stars as the hilariously named Chance Boudreaux. A former medaled Marine who’s now desperately strapped for cash, Chance is introduced as a bizarre set of images: a single earring, a pronounced mullet, a slurped-up bowl of gumbo, etc. Just as cheesy jazz bar noodling follows around Tequila in Hard Boiled, Chance is scored with consistently cheesy blues guitar-riffing at every appearance. Early in the film, you get the sense that Woo’s directorial style has been significantly damaged in its exportation to America. It seems as if only his corniest stylistic impulses had made the jump, with none of the over-the-top action spectacle that contrasted them. Once the film leaves the city limits to meet Wilford Brimley’s Cajun caricature in the swamp, Woo’s personal touch becomes much clearer. Stunts, explosions, gunfire, motorcycles, and hard asses biting heads off snakes fill the screen in a nonstop, absurd cacophony strung together from a mind-bogglingly long parade of individual camera setups. What easily could have been a forgettable JCVD cheapie with a vague point to make about class politics and our casual disregard for the homeless transforms into a beautiful, explosive indulgence in over-the-top hyperviolence. The difference between John Woo and his American counterparts was that he went all in on action spectacle, where others would pull back & leave room for the audience to breathe. The problem is that American movie studios were much less accommodating to that violent fervor than the financiers that he was used to working with in Hong Kong.
As you might suspect, the reason Woo’s touch for over-the-top spectacle doesn’t initially come through in Hard Target is that American movie studio tinkering was holding him back. Universal Pictures executives had zero confidence in Woo (an unease they pinned entirely on a language barrier) despite his reputation for delivering all-time classic action vehicles like Hard Boiled. It took recognizable, bankable names like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sam Raimi (who was hired to hang around on set “on standby” to take over direction in case Woo “couldn’t handle” the production) to vouch for his genius for the studio to give him any creative control. Beyond that, 1990s MPAA censorship was much stricter on violence than its Hong Kong equivalent, so Woo had to make extensive cuts to Hard Target’s onscreen bloodshed to secure even an R rating. He smartly got around this hurdle by saving most of the absurd ultraviolence for the film’s Mardi Gras warehouse climax, making it count where he could. Still, you can feel early in the film how the softer edges on the violence (along with the shortened 90 min runtime, which leaves little room for elaborate action set pieces) stifled what made a John Woo film special in the first place. Hard Target is a deliciously silly action vehicle for JCVD’s brand of macho violence, maybe even one of his best, but it isn’t nearly as overwhelming in its creative heights as Hard Boiled, the Woo film that directly preceded it. As a pair, the two Hard films demonstrate exactly how Woo’s sensibilities were dulled & distorted in his transition to the American studio system, leaving the glory days of Hong Kong’s action cinema heights firmly in his rearview. The comparison is perhaps unfair to Hard Target, which eventually excels in an American action cinema context once it warms up, but it does help illustrate what was so spectacular about Hong Kong action’s heyday and what was lost in its slow 1990s fadeout, thanks both to American influence and to the culture of Hong Kong itself fading away.