Bullets make bloody ballet

August 20, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The Wooing begins.

John Woo, the world's greatest action director, at last brings his three-ring, 20-gun, hellzapoppin' Hong Kong movie circus to America, and the results, in "Hard Target," are unlike anything you've ever seen.

It may be good, it may be bad, depending; but it is certainly new.

Woo made his reputation in a number of loony Chinese bulletfests, which is a feat in itself: He managed to distinguish himself globally against the context of the world's most absurd, raucous and trashy film culture. But his true masterwork is "The Killer," one of the world's great outlaw-screwball masterpieces, a twisted extravaganza of overwrought balletic ultraviolence and weepie buddy sentimentality. He wouldn't exist without Sam Peckinpah, but he makes Sam Peckinpah look like . . . Woody Allen (who's also filming gunfights now, but that's a different story!)

"Hard Target" isn't true blue Woo; one can see where he's reined himself in thematically to work within the American studio system with its reliance on star-driven vehicles. The star doing the driving in this particular case is the least interesting aspect of the film, and the second least interesting aspect is the story. About them collectively, Woo could care less.

Jean-Claude Van Damme. Sigh. Groan. Yawn. ZZZZZZZ. Jean-Claude Van Damme?

Well, as Chuck Pfarrer's meager story has it, Jean-Claude is one Chance Boudreaux (is that a name or what?), a down-and-out ex-'Nam war hound (Marine recon, the best of the best) drifting along on the skid rows of New Orleans. He's one of those homeless guys you always see hanging out, you know, the ones in the Armani raincoats, with the flawlessly white teeth and the $200 haircuts slick with mousse. I always give those guys a dime. Anyway, after rescuing a beautiful young woman from thugs (a great martial arts scene), he is hired by her to locate her missing father, also a Marine war hero, also tragically homeless.

This quickly inserts us into the rest of the story, a gloss on the old pulp-classic short story, "The Most Dangerous Game." It seems that a debauched criminal superman (Lance Henriksen) is offering discreet human safaris, in which jaded big game hunters cough up big dough for the ultimate forbidden thrill: a chance to hunt human game across urban nightscapes. It's paintball with 5.56-millimeter full metal jackets.

All this is lame pretext. It's clear that the setup bores Woo, because he invests no energy in personifying the hunters and the relationship between Chance and the girl (Yancy Butler, a spacey, Lauren Hutton type) remains flat and dreary. Far more intimacy -- in fact, it's a relationship charged with homoeroticism -- develops between Henriksen and his No. 1 guy, a creepy psycho called Pik played creepily by Arnold Vosloo. Woo just wants to get the shooting started.

Soon enough, Van Damme has got himself declared an endangered species and is being hunted not only by the hunters but by Henriksen's entire para-military apparatus, which includes helicopters and every weapon known to man except the Pez dispenser.

Woo is willing, at this point, to make concessions to formula, and thus stops the action at one point to accommodate a strictly by-the-numbers comic interlude with platitudinous old Wilford Brimley, spouting bromides and oatmeal as Chance's inevitable "Crazy Cajun Uncle." This gives the over-exposed Brimley a few minutes of down-homey showboating and simply stalls the final gun-down.

But what a gun-down. And what a series of gun-ups to get to the gun-down. Viewed as kinetic sculpture, its elaborate action sequences totally divorced from the brainless story that so limply supports it, "Hard Target" is off the charts, off the walls and through the roof. Then it knocks the house down. Have I made myself clear?

Woo views action differently than his American progenitors. He is to action as Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker were to the parody: he expands the form exponentially, literally creating a tapestry of hypnotic intensity that just keeps topping itself. The tired old staples of the gunfight and all its subthemes -- ambush, facedown, one-on-20 -- are now seen as through a glass freshly. He takes the balletics of classical martial arts and adds guns, lots of guns, guns used as they have never been used before in movies, and literally creates action poetry. Call it Gun Fu. But he refuses to yield entirely to romance: Like Peckinpah he uses the technical device of the blood-pack, the little spurt of plasma that springs from a just-punctured body. Thus be forewarned: "Hard Target" is a blood-pack-o-rama, and at one point it was so gory it got an NC-17 rating. Now it's only a hard, hard R.

One pines to see Woo back in the saddle again as he was in Hong Kong, writing his own films which express his view of the world, and working with the best actors and the biggest budgets. Perhaps "Hard Target" will be hit enough to get him to that happy hunting ground, perhaps not. But in a single step, he makes most other American action movies feel tepid and slow.

'Hard Target'

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

Directed by John Woo

Released by Universal

Rated R

***

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