John Woo Goes Hard, Goes American

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.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: Knock Off (1998) on Crushed Celluloid’s Jean-Pod Van Damme Podcast

I was recently invited back to join in on another episode of Jean-Pod Van Damme, a podcast that, as you’d likely guess, is solely dedicated to the cinematic wonders of the Muscles from Brussels, JCVD. Hosted by Marcus Jones of the movie blog Crushed Celluloid (which has an eponymous flagship podcast as well), Jean-Pod Van Damme is a irony-free celebration of one of action cinema’s more unlikely stars, a meathead European martial arts expert who stumbles in convincingly delivering his laugh lines. In this specific episode of JPVD, Marcus & I discussed the 1998 Van Damme/Rob Schneider team-up action comedy Knock Off. Directed by Tsui Hark (the same Hong Kong legend who directed JCVD’s team-up with Dennis Rodman, Double Team), Knock Off is a kind of spiritual sequel to the film I discussed with Marcus the last time I guested on his show.

Give a listen to Jean-Pod Van Damme’s episode on Knock Off below! And if you like what you hear, you can find Crushed Celluloid on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their regular ol’ homepage for more enthusiastic takes on fringe genre cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: Double Team (1997) on Crushed Celluloid’s Jean-Pod Van Damme Podcast

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I was recently invited to join in on an episode of Jean-Pod Van Damme, a podcast that, as you’d likely guess, is solely dedicated to the cinematic wonders of the Muscles from Brussels, JCVD. Hosted by Marcus Jones of the movie blog Crushed Celluloid (which has an eponymous flagship podcast as well), Jean-Pod Van Damme is a irony-free celebration of one of action cinema’s more unlikely stars, a meathead European martial arts expert who stumbles in convincingly delivering his laugh lines. Crushed Celluloid as a whole, including their two podcasts & periodic film articles, participates in the exact earnest approach to typically undervalued genre cinema that we strive to achieve here at Swampflix and I’m proud to have been asked to contribute to what they already do so well.

In this specific episode of JPVD, Marcus & I discussed the 1997 Van Damme/Dennis Rodman team-up action comedy Double Team.  In my own review of the film, I described it as “gloriously half-cooked” & “a mid-90s camp relic most notable for its inclusion of a gender-defiant fashion prankster with some highly questionable political affiliations who apparently used to play basketball or something.” It was a lot of fun, then, to dissect something so frivolous at length with someone who’s a huge fan of its top-billed star and, honestly, I was more than a little flattered to even be asked, since I had only ever guested on a podcast once before (when I discussed the Vincent Price version of The Fly with the folks at We Love to Watch).

Give a listen to Jean-Pod Van Damme’s episode on Double Team below! And if you like what you hear, you can find Crushed Celluloid on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their regular ol’ homepage for more enthusiastic takes on fringe genre cinema.

 

-Brandon Ledet

Double Team (1997)

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Try to think back to a time before he started making baffling political affiliations with North Korea & Donald Trump; Dennis Rodman was a pretty cool dude. For a high profile athlete, Rodman was a striking pop culture presence in his gender-fluid fashion choices. Belly rings, make-up, wedding dresses, brightly-dyed hair: these aren’t exactly the typical hallmarks of an NBA superstar’s wardrobe and I think we shouldn’t take for granted how cool it was that Rodman was blurring gender lines in his personal style choices in the 90s, even if he’s revealed himself to be an ass in the decades since. Where there’s novelty, there’s always money to be made, too. It turns out that action movie producers at the time were inexplicably interested in cashing in on Rodman’s striking visual presence & converting that gender fluidity into box office dollars through some kind of shoot-em-up cinema alchemy. The first title in Rodman’s very short career as an action hero found him teaming up with genre mainstay Jean-Claude Van Damme. He is in no way natural to the terrain, feeling like a cameo role that somehow got conflated to second-bill in a buddy picture and his strange presence elevates what would be a standard issue action film into a chaotic mess of loosely connected set pieces & glorious inanity. Double Team would’ve been a decent genre picture without Rodman, but it gets excitingly, memorably dumb when he kinks up the works, both literally & figuratively.

Double Team plays like two distinct movies smashed together into an incoherent mess. One film is your standard JCVD vehicle where the Muscles from Brussels must retrieve his pregnant wife from the treacherous clutches of a before-he-got-gross Mickey Rourke. In this half, Rodman sort of makes sense in what seems like a single-scene cameo as a kooky arms dealer who hangs out in a pansexual, S&M themed nightclub. The film’s other half is a technofuture fantasy about an island of highly skilled assassins being held prisoner (with the help of underwater lasers, of course) because they’ve “gone soft” and forced to work as an espionage think tank. Because Rodman’s role as a wise-cracking sidekick was needlessly expanded to last throughout the entire length of the film, neither of Double Team‘s dueling plots ever feel like they have enough room to breathe. Either a whole movie about escaping the futuristic assassin island or one about taking down a wickedly cruel Rourke could’ve worked coherently on its own, but when smashed together & elbowed into the corners of the frame by Rodman’s ball-hogging screen presence, it’s mostly just a ludicrous mess (and all the more memorable for it). By the time Double Team‘s parade of cartoonish set-pieces (which include carnivals, infirmaries, fetish clubs, and fantasy islands) culminate in a climactic martial arts showdown in an ancient coliseum loaded with landmines and a bloodthirsty tiger, none of these plot concerns matter. At all. You just passively watch Rodman & JCVD duck for cover behind some convenient ad placement Coke machines as the coliseum explodes and the credits bring on a club hit featuring Rodman’s rhythmic mumblings & a pulsing gay 90s beat. Double Team is gloriously half-cooked in this way and I’m not sure I would have preferred a version of the film that followed through on any of its loosely-connected storylines any more carefully or thoroughly than it already did. That attention was much better spent on crafting & presenting Dennis Rodman’s wide range of distinct looks & flatly-delivered one-liners, no question.

There is really only one scene in Double Team where Dennis Rodman’s involvement makes sense. Van Damme is in need of some high tech gear early in the film to take out Rourke’s trecherous terrorist and he finds his perfect weapons dealer in Rodman. For his part, the basketball star is holed up in a massive, queer nightclub loaded with drag queens, club kids, and SCUBA-themed S&M models. Rodman’s most natural involvement in this film would’ve been to sell JCVD some cool future-guns and exchange a couple sarcastic quips before being on his merry way, never to return. Indeed, Van Damme asks Rodman, “Who does your hair, Siegfried or Roy?” Rodman shoots back, “The last guy who insulted my hair is still pulling his head out of his ass,” to which Van Damme responds, “I don’t want to hear about your sex life.” In a movie where that was the end of their transaction, this scene would have played as casually homophobic, but since Rodman & Van Damme are burgeoning buddies at the start of a feature-length bromance, it somehow comes off as light, harmless teasing. Rodman shoehorns himself into the rest of the film’s plot to make room for sore thumb basketball references (“The best defense is a good offense,” “Oops! Airball,”) & a wide range of gender-defiant wardrobe choices, with no further reference made to his sexuality in the script before his gay 90s club hit plays over the end credits. It’s an oddly progressive choice for something that’s mostly a by-the-books action flick and although Rodman’s sore thumb presence & subpar line deliveries disrupt Double Team‘s narrative structure & pacing, they also elevate the film into a more memorable camp spectacle status.

Double Team is the American debut of Chinese action director Tsui Hark, whose most recognizable credits might be a stray Jet Li or Jackie Chan production among his sea of titles like A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon a Time in China, and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. The filmmaker is well-respected in his martial arts cinema genre of choice and I think Double Team might’ve worked a little better if its narrative were allowed to stretch out to a standard Chinese action film’s runtime, which tend to be a little lengthier than American genre pictures. Compressing the disparate storylines of Double Team into a brisk 90min package made each story beat feel inconsequential & frivolous, especially since so much of the film was dedicated to the lofty goal of making Dennis Rodman seem funny & tough. Tsui Hark seems a tad overqualified for such a generic action vehicle in the first place, but his sense of scale & brutality makes for memorable action cinema moments, especially once the tigers & hospitals full of newborn babies get involved. Rodman’s blinding distraction of a presence makes sure that the film’s action sequences and hodgepodge plot are in no danger of dominating discussion surrounding the film, however. This is a mid-90s camp relic most notable for its inclusion of a gender-defiant fashion prankster with some highly questionable political affiliations who apparently used to play basketball or something. I can’t say for sure if Rodman’s strange presence was enough to carry a lead role in his other action vehicle, Simon Sez, and I’m honestly a little afraid to find out. However, as a comic relief sidekick with an attitude problem airdropped into an action vehicle where he doesn’t belong (like so many Poochies of X-treme 90s past), he’s a delightfully off-putting novelty that makes Double Team way more fun & noteworthy than it has right to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Bloodsport (1988)

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Jean-Claude Van Damme stars in his breakout role as Frank Dux (pronounced “Dukes”). Dux is an army captain who was trained in martial arts by a childhood friend’s father. In order to bring honor to his teacher after his son dies, he travels to Hong Kong to fight in an illegal martial arts tournament called the “Kumite.” There are fighters from all over the world, and the tournament itself has a notorious reputation for being brutal and deadly.

Bloodsport is a movie dripping with borderline racism (sometimes extremely blatant) and toxic masculinity. The characters are not much more than stereotypes and poorly written caricatures. And there are numerous plot holes and things left totally unanswered. (How does his childhood friend die? What exactly is it that he does in the army?) But I think the biggest weakness this movie has is it’s totally nonsensical timeline. Event after event after event happens and then Dux says,”I’ll meet you for dinner tonight.”  When does he get trained for this tournament? In the two days before he leaves or sometime while he’s in the army? There’s no clear markers as to when anything happens.

Not to say there isn’t some genuine fun in this movie, such as the fight scenes. Considering that Bloodsport is a movie based around an illegal full contact martial arts tournament, it’s a really good thing that these scenes are entertaining. They’re full of unrealistic blood, definitely physically impossible fighting movies, and gratuitous slow motion, all set to an 80’s-tastic soundtrack.  It’s fighting movie cheese at its peak.

But as the two dimensional love interest Janice asks,”What is there to understand about a bunch of guys who have to prove themselves by beating each other’s brains out?” I don’t really think the movie ever truly answers this question, try as it might. The goals of honor and revenge aren’t fleshed out enough to mean anything, and you’re just left with bloody violence. Bloody violence that’s overblown and entertaining in it’s absolute ridiculousness, but still just pointless violence. And “That’s why they call this thing bloodsport, kid!”

-Alli Hobbs