By the time Hard Target hit theaters in the summer of 1993, the age of the muscle-bound, trigger-happy hero, whose heyday had coincided with the Reagan administration, was in its autumn days. As the late 1980s gave way to the everyman style of action star—Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon (1987), Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988)—the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the world, though still marquee attractions, found themselves sharing the screen with jaw-dropping special effects (Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991) or unlikely environments (Stallone in Cliffhanger, 1993). Action, at least in the ’80s sense of the genre, had become a box-office gamble, and studios became more likely to bank on the spectacle of Batman (1989) or Jurassic Park (1993) than the brawny idols of yesteryear—unless there was a hook.
During the video-store boom of the 1980s and early ’90s, the filmographies of international auteurs became a lot more available to American viewers. For those with a particular kind of bloodlust, the kind that used to be scratched by Rambo (1982) or Death Wish (1974), the wanton violence of the films coming out of Hong Kong was second to none, and the gold standard was John Woo, who had directed such films as A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992)—each one more gruesome than the last. It was only inevitable that he’d eventually be called to the shores of the United States to unleash his particular brand of kinetic sadism into our studio system.
For his Hollywood debut, Woo had things stacked against him from the start. The market for violent tough guys was waning, and his film would star suave Belgian martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme. The MPAA routinely withheld its R rating in cases of gratuitous violence, and Woo’s treatment lent itself to just that. Based on a script by Darkman (1990) scribe Chuck Pfarrer, Hard Target is a saga of human hunting (à la The Most Dangerous Game, 1932) set in New Orleans, with Van Damme caught in the middle of a criminal enterprise setting up expensive hunts for wealthy would-be murderers.
To the surprise of nobody who had seen Woo’s Hard Boiled the previous year, the MPAA gave Hard Target a dreaded NC-17 rating. Universal executives compelled Woo to recut the film half a dozen times, going from a 126-minute workprint to a theatrical cut of 97 minutes. Of course, by nature of workprints, that additional 29 minutes isn’t entirely violence, but a lot of it is. In Woo’s preferred 116-minute cut, which was released in some other territories, more explicit violence is consistently on display and includes arrows protruding from necks and enough messy squibs to make Paul Verhoeven and Sam Peckinpah proud.
Thirty years later, that extended cut is available on home video in the United States, including 4K UHD, a far cry from the muddy video transfers to which curious domestic audiences resorted in the 1990s, though Nitehawk will screen the original American theatrical version on 35mm. But beyond its much contested, unbridled violence, Hard Target exists as one of the best examples of Woo’s technique. Its action is balletic, its tongue firmly in cheek. The whole ordeal is set to a twangy score by Graeme Revell that sounds at times so much like Ry Cooder that the movie could be a Walter Hill homage. Like all of Woo’s films, not only his best ones, it’s never subtle. It’s a markedly sadistic slice of East meets West action with touches of Southern Gothic and a finale that features Wilford Brimley riding horseback, a warehouse of decaying Mardi Gras floats, Woo’s requisite doves and, yes, Van Damme punching a snake in the face.
Hard Target screens tonight, August 21, at Nitehawk Prospect Park on 35mm.