Meet the new boss of action flicks; same as the old boss, according to many of his contemporaries.
China's John Woo has enchanted and inspired action movie directors for years with his dreamily violent visualizations. American filmgoers haven't quite caught on yet, since Woo's subtitled shoot-'em-ups (The Killer, Hard Boiled) rarely play at neighborhood multiplexes.
That undue anonymity is about to change. Woo's first English-language film, Hard Target, is (quite literally) a crash course in his stylish ways, even if it isn't always the glorious stateside debut his fans wished. But it's a satisfying collection of the director's greatest hits, thuds and gunfire _ especially borrowed from Hard Boiled _ that should bring him millions of fans.
American action movies seldom look this exciting; they pummel our eyes and ears with bombastic sights and dialogue, expecting moviegoers to appreciate only the most straightforward storytelling style. Woo gives us more credit and more to enjoy; a dazzling, economic way with a camera and sly, sick humor between the bullets.
Sam Peckinpah was the first director to utilize slow-motion cinematography to show the balletic power of violence and Woo quickly cites him as an influence. But Woo has taken the gimmick a step farther, using the technique to express human feelings _ anger, sensuality, frustration, fear _ instead of standard dialogue. That adds even more urgency to Bob Murawski's fast-track editing during the remaining action. With its expert use of dissolves and pans, Hard Target is an arty shot of adrenaline to this overworked genre.
The story serves as a good excuse for the mayhem. Down-
and-out sailor Chance Boudreaux (stud du jour Jean-Claude Van Damme) aids a damsel in distress (Yancy Butler) and stumbles into a vicious conspiracy. Fouchon (Lance Henricksen in another deliciously vile role) operates a special service for rich clients: the opportunity to hunt and kill homeless volunteers trying to escape with a $10,000 fortune. It's incredibly arch and unoriginal _ The Most Dangerous Game or The Running Man come to mind _ but works as an outline for action.
Two obvious problems prevent Hard Target from reaching the giddily subversive levels of Woo's Chinese thrillers. One is Hollywood's insistence that all heroes must be superhunks. Woo's Cantonese favorite leading man, Chow Yun-Fat, is a rather ordinary, uncool-looking guy. Audiences respond to him as one of their own, despite the language barriers. A blazing gun (or two) is what makes him invincible and, in a Freudian way, sort of sexy.
Van Damme, however, is a perfectly oiled killing machine, one that the vast majority of us can't duplicate in looks or martial arts abilities. He's too perfect, other than his Belgian accent that still tramples some of his macho one-liners. Hard Target is a giant leap forward in his sweat-soaked career, and we should be thankful that his American fans will buy tickets and discover John Woo.
The other problem is that Woo has discovered the American art of pyrotechnic play toys, judging from the amount of fiery explosions on display. In The Killer and Hard Boiled, the action was primarily pistol-packing violence, more real and close to the bone. For all its new-wave intentions, there are times when Hard Target looks just like any other testosterone fest.
More often, Woo's film has an exciting look and visceral feel that is unique in Western filmmaking. If nothing else, it should increase video rentals of Woo's foreign films and make a ton of money for those happy capitalists at Universal Pictures.
Perhaps then those studio bosses will give this extraordinary director complete control _ maybe even hire Chow Yun-Fat _ and will really let America see what Woo can do.
Director: John Woo
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yancy Butler, Lance Henricksen, Wilford Brimley
Screenplay: Chuck Pfarrer
Rating: R; violence, profanity
Running time: 102 min.