Thursday, September 8, 2016

Heavy Action: Hard Target 2

by Patrick Bromley
I can't decide if slow motion murders this movie or if this movie murders slow motion.

Normally, I could easily skip a movie like Hard Target 2. It's a sequel to a movie that's over 20 years old and yet another example of Universal using one of their catalogue titles to force a franchise. It's directed by Roel Reiné, the go-to guy for DTV action sequels and the man responsible for The Marine 2, Death Race 2, The Man With the Iron Fists 2, The Condemned 2, 12 Rounds 2: Reloaded and Death Race Inferno. Had Hard Target 2 been headlined by Luke Goss or some WWE superstar the way it normally should be, I could easily take a pass on it until I'm inevitably at my lowest point, standing in front of a Redbox with a garbage pizza in the car (by this I do not mean a "garbage pizza" where the place puts everything they have on the pizza [eww no thanks], but rather a pizza from some terrible chain for which I paid a max of $7) and too much Monster pumping through my system. Ah, but instead Hard Target 2 stars Scott Adkins, and as I have a rule that I will watch anything in which Scott Adkins appears I had no choice but to seek out Hard Target 2 the first chance I got.
Besides, I should at least give credit to Reiné for directing 2008's Pistol Whipped, still the best of Steven Seagal's DTV output and one of his best movies period. With the exception of The Marine 2, I haven't seen any of this other DTV sequels to theatrical releases, in most cases because I wasn't all that crazy about the originals and didn't need to see a sequel that removed the one thing that made me want to see the first movie (like a Death Race movie minus Jason Statham and Joan Allen). His work on Hard Target 2 is very competent; the movie generally looks good and lacks the cheap, tacky feel that so often hampers DTV action films. When there is action, it's shot well -- not overcut or photographed too closely to follow what's going on. It helps, of course, that Scott Adkins is able to do so many of his own stunts and fighting. Reiné doesn't have to cut away or hide the fact that doubles are being brought in to perform the action, and instead lets things play out in longer takes. Unfortunately, Reiné also makes a couple of aesthetic choices that really sink the movie. We'll get back to those.

Scott Adkins plays Wes "The Jailor" Baylor, MMA fighter and questionable speller, who kills his best friend in the ring as the movie opens. He exiles himself to a life of taking random street fights for money (like Jason Bourne, based on the trailers I've seen for that movie I probably won't) until he's approached by Aldrich, a slimy businessman played by Robert Knepper, the DTV Lance Henriksen, who offers him half a million dollars to have the ultimate fight in Burma. Wes agrees, and before you can say "because my momma took one" he discovers there is no fight and that instead he's being hunted for sport by a group of high bidders, including a video game designer ("the Mark Zuckerberg of first person shooters," which I guess is a thing), a bull fighter and a wealthy, leather-clad sociopath played by Rhona Mitra. Wes finds help in the form of a villager named Tha (Ann Truong), who might want him to help her find her brother and who might just be after Wes's rubies. I am not making this up.
To really understand Hard Target 2, we must first go back to the original Hard Target in 1993. While not a masterpiece of the action genre, Hard Target is an important movie in a lot of ways. First, it's the movie that brought John Woo to America, and while that may not seem like quite a big deal these days because of Woo's output over the last 10-15 years (particularly in America, which is almost nonexistent), his influence in the genre cannot be overstated. If you were an action junkie in the early '90s, the idea that John Woo would be making an American movie was enough to make your head explode with excitement. This was also a movie that helped cement Jean-Claude Van Damme's status as one of the premiere action stars of the '90s; he had been making smaller, lower-budget films since the late '80s, but this was a big studio movie with a high profile. He was essentially the one responsible for securing Woo to make the movie and bringing him to America, because he is the best.

But Hard Target has a lot else going for it, too. Sure, it has problems; Woo and Van Damme didn't really get along, Yancy Butler seems confused/drunk and it was recut by the studio with some of the violence was trimmed down (though rewatching it just two years ago, I was surprised at how much of the violence was retained). But it's also a really clever and simple take on The Most Dangerous Game: a group of hunters have the tables turned when they try to hunt a man who's more dangerous than them. It's full of the crazy, larger-than-life touches you get when you hire John Woo to make your movie, like snake punching or the hero surfing a motorcycle. It has an energy that is missing from all but the best action movies we get these days. It is, in its way, special.

Which brings us to the in-name-only sequel, which has little understanding of what made the first movie special. It once again introduces the premise of a group of killers who hunt a man for sport but don't understand what they're in for, but this basic setup is really the only way that the sequel is worthy of the Hard Target brand (well, this and the fact that a line of dialogue that's repeated multiple times says something about "They're called Hard Targets for a reason," even though no one has referred to anyone as a "hard target" to this point. Is it possible that the bad guy saw the original movie?). In fact, had the producers gone with another title and just tweaked the premise a little bit, this would be a decent entry in the DTV action genre. Instead, it struggles to overcome its status as a sub-part Hard Target sequel. That's the difference branding makes, I guess, and the risk you take when trying to ride the coattails of an earlier, better movie.
It's not as though anyone is phoning it in. It's obvious that everyone is working really hard on this one -- too hard, in fact, as much of the movie buckles under the strain of its own effort. In trying to write a script that is more character-based, screenwriters Dominic Morgan and Matthew Harvey have eschewed action -- the reason we watch action movies -- for long stretches of backstory and dialogue. The stuff with Wes killing his best friend takes about a half hour before we finally get to the jungle and start the chase, then continues to come up again and again through the rest of the movie as Wes's only defining character trait. In one scene later in the film, he recounts the story to Tha in full detail; this is not only redundant -- we've seen all of this dramatized already -- but is treated as a reveal for the audience, as though it is meant to explain why Wes is quiet and guarded and haunted by something in his past. This doesn't work because it's how the movie opened. No new information is being provided, so we're essentially asked to bear witness while a secondary character is brought up to speed on what we in the audience already know. Not helping matters is the heavy-handed manner in which director Reiné shoots all of this stuff, which is turgid and full of slow motion and characters going "NOOOOOO." The movie threatens to collapse in on its own self-importance.

And there's the biggest issue with Hard Target 2. Whereas the first movie has its own weird, fun energy, it seems like the filmmakers decided that the way to distinguish Hard Target 2 from its predecessor its to have no energy at all. This is a movie in dire need of tighter editing. Scenes go on too long. Hell, even shots go on too long thanks to Reiné's insane over-reliance on slow motion. Every fifth shot in the movie slows down to a crawl for a moment that's either meant to be important (Scott Adkins looking very serious) or cool (Rhona Mitra walking away from an explosion). It destroys any moment the movie is able to build even in its fight scenes, and after awhile I just found myself growing impatient with the whole thing. Yes, John Woo used a lot of slow motion. I can't say if Reiné's decision to make a third of Hard Target 2 play out in slo-mo is his tribute to Woo's style or if it's just his attempt at using cinematic shorthand to give his movie weight. The net result is numbing and actually makes Hard Target 2 difficult to watch.
How's my boy Adkins? He's good, but he's been much better. I don't blame him -- the physical stuff is as impressive as ever, and there are a few bits of fighting that are so cool that they carried me through the rough spots -- but he's given a role that's at one too much and not enough to play. I like Adkins in his quiet, brooding roles (Universal Solder: Day of Reckoning) and I like him in his more talkative roles, but Wes Baylor is a character who talks too much without really having anything to say. He's also sidelined too often by the mechanics of the plot. I want to watch a movie in which Scott Adkins is the ultimate badass, capable of taking out a team of hunters who fucked with the wrong MMA fighter. Instead, he takes out maybe one or two of the guys; the rest are killed off either by other characters or, even worse, one another. The climax of a Scott Adkins-led Hard Target movie should see him tearing through an entire army singlehandedly. This one sees him driving a boat and racing for the Thailand border.

The movie might be worth watching just for the end credits, which consists of a bunch of B-roll playing alongside the names of the cast and crew. It's shots of streets in Burma -- traffic, people, buildings -- and then every once in a while shows Scott Adkins standing around or eating or hopping a train. That's it. I kept waiting for some kind of tag, like a reveal that one of the bad guys is still alive or Nick Fury showing up to ask Wes Baylor if he wanted to join the Shitty Avengers, but no. It's a choice that's just misguided enough in a movie full of choices that are just misguided enough to keep Hard Target 2 from really working.
My Scott Adkins rule stands, because except for that movie in which he and Dolph Lundgren compete for a dragon (I am not making this up) I have never been completely disappointed in a Scott Adkins vehicle. There's enough effort being made in Hard Target 2 that I have to at least admire the fact that everyone is clearly trying to make a good movie -- the same cannot be said of all DTV action -- but there are too many bumps in the road to succeed as either a character piece or as a kickass action film. Roel Reiné has done great work in the past (Pistol Whipped) by trying to incorporate character into the genre and make a "real" movie that challenges what a DTV actioner can be. I think he might be trying to do the same thing here, but instead of pushing a lazy star to his best performance he ends up tying the hands of one the best current stars of the genre.

Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. Nice piece as I too have this on my list to watch only because of Adkins. I read an interview with him where he stated that Marvel allowed him to go shoot this film as he was under contract for Doctor Strange but they worked with his schedule so he could fly out and shoot this film.

    In that interview he said something which coincides with what you wrote about the action. He mentioned that he usually uses a certain crew for choreographing his fights, however, he did not have them available for this film so that might be indicative as to why the scenes weren't as good as some of his others. I don't remember where I read the interview but it made me like him even more.

  2. This movie is great. It is what it is. Certainly not the new citizen kane

    His best is still universal soldier day of reckoning

  3. His role as Boyka in the two Undisputed sequels (though i LOVE Walter Hill's original) is for me his best work!!

  4. Yeah...this was a disappointment. Maybe Adkins just needed a jheri-curl-assisted mullet to really tie the franchise together.

    Patrick, have you had a chance to watch Redeemer yet? I still think that's a really strong DTV take on one-man-against-a-million action movies and I'd love to hear your take.

  5. What upset me most about this is the cover box which stated "All New Movie!" I've seen that on many cover boxes over the years and I've never understood the logic of that marketing

  6. What upset me most about this is the cover box which stated "All New Movie!" I've seen that on many cover boxes over the years and I've never understood the logic of that marketing