Episode 50: BARGAIN BIN #9 Hard Target (1993)

Film chosen by Gali and Devlin (sort of), introduced by Devlin

We have, somehow, reached a half-century of episodes of this little ramblepod. And while this round of Throwbacks was due to be my choice of The Misfits, there was a feeling in the air that perhaps an elegiac, monochrome monument to the decaying embers of the Hollywood Golden Age wasn’t quite the way to mark this little achievement. So, we went bin dipping and dug out this little doozy instead, a film that, for myself and Gali at least, was a perennial fallback of mad action good times from our childhoods onwards. As happens with many of our Bargain Bin picks, it just sort of materialised out of conversation and felt…right. There’s plenty to discuss, as the film marks not only John Woo’s first foray in to Hollywood, but the first major Hollywood production ever helmed by a Chinese director.

It’s also our first podcast focussing on the inimitable Jean-Claude Van Damme. While we’ve tackled his fellow martial arts action star-turned-DTV staple Steven Seagal previously, I’ll happily put my chips on the table and say that JCVD was always my jam (sandwich). His hyperactive screen persona never shied away from silliness, a really endearing trait that contrasted with Seagal’s infamous inability to laugh at any aspect of himself, despite the ample (and I do mean ample) joke fodder in his absurd slow-handed fighting style, lacklustre line readings, inhuman infallibility in hand-to-hand combat and all around creepy grossness. While both haven’t exactly slid in to middle age with a great deal of dignity intact, there’s a reason why Van Damme still occasionally gets to play around in self-referential, critically acclaimed hidden gems, even sillier, heavily ironic Amazon Prime series, major commercial campaigns and gruesomely effective series continuations while Seagal appears for the minimum contractually-obligated amount of screen time in nonsensical tax-dodging horseshit, hawks awful energy drinks in truly miserable ways and spends his spare time hassling migrant workers on behalf of hideously racist, corrupt Sheriffs and hanging out with all the worst people.

Hard Target sits right in the middle of Van Damme’s short, remarkable run to true stardom, a low budget chance (ha!) taken by a nervy studio on a supremely talented, kinetic director that they weren’t convinced could helm a film alone, and a star who had yet to truly catch on with the public despite increasing success in the action realm over the preceding half-decade or so. Here was a filmmaker willing to linger his slo-mo camera over every graceful shitkicking and absurd bicep flex, and surround his star with enough literal pyrotechnics to make it all seem legitimately big time. Van Damme followed this with his bumper 1994, a real game of two halves that contained both his very successful, totally bonkers sci-fi action vehicle Timecop, and the epic failure of Street Fighter. That debacle left Van Damme as a star in search of a hit, one that would never really come again. And that’s a road that leads only to ridicule and reality telly. To be honest there’s always a moment of reckoning for action movie stars, and for those who can’t grow out of the genre, they can only tumble down the mountain via gimmicky nonsense like Double Team and egocentric follies like The Quest (I really like The Quest).

The 90s action scene was a deeply silly place. Hard Target is as good an illustration of why we keep returning to it as anything. And Van Damme encapsulates as well as anyone the unique combination of camp, crassness, craziness and combustible material that makes it compelling to return to. A go-for-broke John Woo capturing all this with his trademark bag of tricks already operating at full throttle? That’s a spicy gumbo that could never be described as a tragedy.

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