A lot of bad movies star Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a lot of bad movies are ripoffs of “The Most Dangerous Game,” but “Hard Target” is the only bad movie that is both of those things. It’s also one of the few Van Damme movies to feature a character who is harder to understand than he is, and the only one where it’s Wilford Brimley. It might be the only film in which Van Damme punches a snake, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Van Damme seems like the kind of person who has punched more than one snake in his life.
“Hard Target” takes place in New Orleans, that crawfish-scented, zydeco-scored cesspool of vice and crime, and I guess also streetcars. Here a ruthless entrepreneur named Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) runs a business wherein rich people pay a lot of money to hunt hobos for sport. This was later Dick Cheney’s plan for ending homelessness, but in 1993 it was still controversial, so Fouchon keeps it on the down-low. He and his righthand man, the comically named Pik van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo), use shady operators from New Orleans’ seedier neighborhoods to find homeless men who won’t be missed if they disappear, then promise those men $10,000 if they can get out of the city without being killed. They usually agree to these terms, as do most people when given an opportunity to leave New Orleans.
Now brace yourself, because a lot of coincidences are about to happen. A woman named Nat (Yancy Butler) comes to town looking for her estranged father, with whom she has not had any contact in twenty years. She knows the old man is homeless, so she hires a local grease-ball named Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme) to help her comb the back alleys and shelters to look for him. (She met Chance when he rescued her from some thugs who were harassing her, which I think they were only doing so the movie would have a reason for Chance to rescue her.) On the first day of Nat and Chance’s search, the cops find Nat’s father’s body in a burned-out building on the outskirts of town. If only Nat had tried to reconcile a week earlier! I hope any of you who are currently not speaking to either of your parents take this as a sign to patch things up immediately, before they are murdered and set on fire.
The police assume Nat’s hobo father died accidentally in the fire. But Chance Boudreaux isn’t so sure! Chance Boudreaux is an out-of-work merchant seaman with a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet, so I think he knows a thing or two about police forensics! He barges past the police tape to where Hobo Dad’s body was discovered and finds the victim’s military dog tag. It has a hole punched through it — which can only mean that Hobo Dad was shot, i.e., murdered, and that his body was burned to hide the fact. I guess if any movie has a chance of convincing us that a Van Damme character is smarter and more competent than the local police it’s one set in New Orleans, but it’s still a stretch.
So Chance and Nat start investigating Hobo Dad’s last known whereabouts. Chance seems to know a lot of local homeless people. Chance is not a homeless, but he can pass for one. He and Nat learn that Hobo Dad was part of an army of bums hired by a local pornographer to hand out fliers for his phone-sex business. This sleaze-bag, Randal (Eliott Keener), a rotund weasel made entire of sweat, is Fouchon’s connection for finding hunting targets. When Fouchon and Pik van Cleef learn that Randal has been talking to nosy out-of-towners about one of their victims, they rough him up and cut off part of his ear with a pair of scissors. This is gross. It is also one of the hallmarks of bad violent movies: unlikable characters torturing other unlikable characters, to the satisfaction and enjoyment of no one.
While Chance and Nat are looking for clues, Fouchon is continuing to operate his business. There is a scene of him playing an elaborate classical piece on the piano, which demonstrates 1) that despite being a psychopath he has refined tastes; and 2) that the people who made “Hard Target” had also seen some of the 42,580 previous films in which the psychopath played the piano and had refined tastes. Fouchon takes his latest client on a hunting expedition in which the target is Roper (Willie C. Carpenter), an old friend of Hobo Dad’s. Roper takes a bullet in the arm but manages to escape. He runs through the streets of New Orleans saying “Help me!” to strangers, but no one will help him because they think he is just a bum who wants their spare change. (To be fair, he is a bum, and he probably would not turn down any spare change.) I think the movie is trying to make a point about the way we ignore the plight of the homeless. The real point the movie makes, however, is that Roper is not very good at expressing himself. “I’ve been shot!” or “Some men are trying to kill me!” or “Please call the police!” would have communicated his situation much better than the vague “Help me!”
Anyway, Fouchon and his guys just straight-up shoot him dead in the street, in front of witnesses, none of whom come forward when the police arrive, which makes you wonder why Fouchon bothered to keep his hobo-hunting operation a secret in the first place.
At last we get to the part we’ve been waiting for, where Fouchon starts hunting and tracking Chance Boudreaux. Somehow aware of Chance’s great skill at not being hunted or tracked (despite his powerful scent), Fouchon brings in a team of former clients to help him, like a “Jeopardy!” tournament of champions, offering $750,000 to whoever brings him down. Now on the run, Chance and Nat travel deep into the bayou to seek refuge with Uncle Douvee (Wilford Brimley), an incomprehensible old Cajun who looks like Papa Smurf and sounds like the candlestick in “Beauty and the Beast.” Your dreams of seeing a filthy Wilford Brimley toddle around a dilapidated shack with a shotgun in his hand are fulfilled.
At one point during their marshland trek, Chance tells Nat to stand still and close her eyes. She does so, thinking he’s going to kiss her, and then instead he grabs the rattlesnake that was lurking behind her and punches it in the head. Ha ha, you thought he liked you when all he really wanted was to punch a snake! Girls are so dumb. Then Chance bites the snake’s rattle off and leaves the angry serpent as a trap for the bad guys, as one does.
Like all Van Damme films, this one has its climax in an abandoned warehouse. This particular warehouse holds old Mardi Gras floats, but it could have been anything: boxes, crates, vats of deadly acid, steam-producing machines that are activated by bumping into a lever, etc. Chance, Nat, and Uncle Douvee manage to kill most of Fouchon’s team before it all comes down to Jean-Claude Van Damme versus Lance Henriksen, as foretold in the book of Revelation. Since the movie was directed by John Woo, there are a lot of doves flying around, and everything happens in slow motion. The movie is 97 minutes long, but if it weren’t for the slow motion it would only be about an hour. And since it’s a Van Damme movie, Van Damme kicks a lot of people. The only thing Van Damme loves more than punching and mutilating snakes is kicking people. Sometimes in this movie he’ll shoot a guy and then kick him, too, for good measure, in case the bullet through the heart didn’t do the job. If you’re a young man trying to make it in Hollywood and you get a part in a Van Damme movie as Goon #4 or whatever, you probably feel pretty gypped if you never get kicked by Van Damme. I mean, what’s the point?