1993’s Hard Target is a film of many distinctions.
It is John Woo’s first American film; in it, you can see him honing the skills to the level of cinema mastery required to craft Face/Off four short years later. It features Jean-Claude Van Damme at Peak Van Damme, the absolute height of his powers, fueled by a Samson-like bond with his mullet, which would have also been clad in denim had the film’s budget and production schedules allowed it. An entire subplot is devoted to The Mummy violently bullying a man who looks like a tobacconist screamed his McDonald’s order into a 3-D printer. It is the longest a film has ever made us think about Lance Henriksen’s hog. In short, Hard Target is not only a perfect movie: it is the best movie.
Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, because nobody could figure out where the fuck he was from in the ’90s so they settled on “French.” (See also: Universal Soldier) Chance is an unhoused day laborer with a Military Backstory™, which is meant to explain why he knows karate even though he could beam that knowledge directly into our brains by making eye contact. He runs afoul of Lance Henriksen, who leads an underground safari business that arranges human hunts for unscrupulous millionaires. Lance and his goons quickly learn that Van Damme is The Most Dangerous Game, a truth many had already suspected, including Van Damme’s parents.
No other director before or since has so perfectly grasped the essence of Van Damme, and what it takes to make the ultimate Blockbuster Video rental for latchkey kids who have yet to discover cigarettes and petty larceny. The entire cast is moist, and the villains are bizarrely jolly. But the triumph of Hard Target is John Woo’s understanding that the only way to film Jean-Claude Van Damme slicing his legs through the air like a pair of smooth denim-clad falcons is to film it from multiple angles and in slow motion. Like the controlled demolition of a national monument.
Hard Target is also a collection of some of the finest moments in the history of kick-based cinema. For instance, in one of these moments, Van Damme punches a snake in the head. I understand that you can read those words, and may have even seen the punch itself in GIF form on one of your many voyages across cyberspace.
But permit me to highlight it once more, with particular emphasis on what it was like before the internet, when movies could just throw something like this at you and you couldn’t tell anyone about it. Seeing Van Damme, glistening with the sweat of a bayou summer, clench his mighty fist and blast an angry rattlesnake into the dreamlands was like being mugged by a ghost. My friends didn’t believe me, and the cops were mad I’d called.
Other standout moments do not directly threaten any wildlife, but are arguably ten times as violent. For instance, every member of Lance Henriksen’s crew looks like they went to at least one high school dance in their 20s.
There’s a montage of Lance Henriksen playing the absolute shit out of a piano while hatefucking his own reflection. I have nothing to add to this. Just let it take you, like the tide, and eternity.
But standing a meaty head and shoulders above them all is Van Damme’s Cajun uncle, Uncle Duvee, played with felonious enthusiasm by Wilford Brimley. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of experiencing this towering achievement in storytelling for the first time. Any words of mine would only paint a crude sketch. It’s best to let Uncle Duvee speak for himself in the only way he knows how – by galloping away from the explosion that was once his desperately impoverished home.
In the final act of Hard Target, Van Damme is chased into the bayou by Lance Henriksen’s men. He takes refuge with Uncle Duvee, who raised him from a tiny Belgian orphan into a bountiful roundhouse dispenser. Don’t worry, the movie doesn’t elaborate on their relationship any further.
Van Damme mentions Uncle Duvee earlier in the film while he is explaining his badass past to his sidekick Yancy Butler, who hired Van Damme off the street to help track down her missing father. (Van Damme is the perfect man for this job, because he has never looked more like Dog the Bounty Hunter.) But even hearing whispers of Uncle Duvee’s legend peppered throughout Hard Target cannot prepare you for the moment in which he is revealed to be Wiflrod Brimley in a pair of overalls, using a 70-year-old still to boil cancer into a jar of moonshine.
Uncle Duvee lives on a solid acre of terrifying land. He may have been born there; he may be squatting. It’s impossible to tell which is correct. Van Damme quickly fills Uncle Duvee in on the plot so far, and they initiate a Home Alone Situation, or “Sitch”, against the villains. They have a rapport that suggests they’ve either done this before or they’ve spent considerable time preparing for this eventuality.
In addition to dispensing bleary-eyed wisdom about the times in a man’s life when he just has to kill a bunch of dudes with karate kicks and fire, Uncle Duvee speaks Cartoon French and owns enough dynamite to guarantee he will be the subject of a Netflix documentary. He briefly pauses between committing shocking acts of violence to drop truth bombs like, “Good whiskey makes de jack rabbit slap de bear.” Nobody else even bothers to act during these scenes.
Uncle Duvee immediately blows up his house and most of his property, although I refuse to believe this is the first time his still has been completely engulfed in flames. The explosion only takes out a few of the bad guys, who for all he knows are really U.S. Marshals coming to take his nephew back to prison. Although that would not have changed his behavior whatsoever. Duvee had clearly been planning to commit insurance fraud for years and this home invasion merely presented an irresistible opportunity.
Uncle Duvee puts arrows into several motherfuckers, like he spent several hard winters eating only what he could kill. And he doesn’t even blink. His eyes are unreadable, his mustache an enigma. He feels nothing but battlefield lust.
For a brief, horrifying moment, we are led to believe Uncle Duvee is dead. Lance Henriksen lunges out from the coward’s shield of darkness and stabs him in the chest with his own arrow. It was like watching Santa get shot by a burglar. I screamed confused rage at my aunt’s television. But the arrow was deflected by Duvee’s alligator skin flask. His heart was shielded by the very same booze that will one day stop it from beating. Indeed, it seems Uncle Duvee was the hardest target of all.
What does Uncle Duvee do the other 364 days a year when he isn’t helping his Belgian nephew kill The Mummy and Lance Henriksen? We’re given the smallest glimpse of what his life might be like during this brief exchange:
CHANCE BOUDREAUX, THE BLUE JEAN WIZARD: Do you still have the 30.06? The one I gave you for your birthday?
UNCLE DOUVEE, FUCK DRAGON OF THE SWAMP: No. A gator ate it.
Was he hunting the gators or feeding them? I cannot know which, and both might be true.
We can assemble a rough idea of Uncle Duvee’s life based on his interests – kicking back in a jon boat, tossing guns into the bayou for the alligators while greedily slurping bathtub gin from a rusty still and drying sticks of dynamite with a space heater. This is the Hard Target sequel I need. I don’t care that Wilford Brimley has been dead since 2020. Uncle Duvee wouldn’t let that stop him.
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