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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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