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Spotlight on—Lance Henriksen in John Woo’s Hard Target

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Lance Henriksen has been making, on average, three and a half movies a year for fifty years. He’s a true workingman’s actor, and the sheer diversity of material that people have written about for this blogathon attests to that fact. Even more so than most beloved character actors, Lance has absolutely no fear of a bad script. Most of his movies are Z-grade; however, in every role I’ve seen him in, he brings an ambiguity to his characterization. His most famous role, as Bishop in the A+ Alien series is a case study in an actor fleshing out the murkiest areas of “personality” and “emotion.” But seeing how it was Bad Movies that he plied his trade in most, a Bad Movie should be the best look at his “belly-of-the-beast” school of acting. In John Woo’s first American action film Henriksen plays one of the most hilariously over-the-top Ubermenschs in movie history, but he subtley builds contradictions into his character that ultimately parody the Nietzschean superman and undercut its false promise of absolute freedom.

 

The Passion of Lance Henriksen

Hard Target has a joke of a plot written entirely, and unfortunately, around Jean Claude Van Damme’s ridiculous hero—Chance “my-momma-took-one” Boudreaux. He plays an ex-Special Forces do-gooder living in New Orleans who gets wrapped up in a variation on The Most Dangerous Game orchestrated by Emil Fouchon—Lance Henriksen’s Nihilistic member of the power-elite with little backstory but plenty of psychology. The story—and I can’t stress this enough—is dumb. Packed with a disturbing, confused conservative sub-text and zero-note main character (even his karate is lackluster), Hard Target would be a miserable experience if not for the incredible Lance Henriksen and his auteur-lite role in its production. His potrayal of Fouchon is alchemy, forging gold from shit and saving the film from complete uselessness. According to the great review earlier in the week over at The Pineal Eye Henriksen improvised much of the character’s little quirks, like the single shot pistol and costume. And on a set with a director who didn’t speak English, he even crafted some of the dialogue. However, it’s Fouchon’s face—and the microexpressions Henriksen gives it that most undercut his false front and icy cool demeanor.

“It’s like a drug, isn’t it? To bring a man down?”

We first meet Emil Fouchon during one of his hunts. He watches silently from his convertible while his “dogs” corral a pudgy, homeless veteran into a completely sad and honorless kill. In The Most Dangerous Game the bored aristocrat supplies the hunted with a weapon and a three-day head start, but in Hard Target they get no weapon and only a five-minute head start. The interesting thing about the game in Hard Target is that it is far less of a hunt than most adaptations of the story. In fact, I was repeatedly reminded of Eli Roth’s contemporary classic, Hostel because it felt like the real thrill of the game was not in the chase but the power trip. The hunters are always extremely sadistic, with the motorcyclists pushing the quarry down over and over and teams of killers in jeeps dogging the already malnourished and ragged bums every step of the way. When the kill finally happens, its pathetic, and in one of the hunts they just pointlessly gun down an entire street full of people. How in-tune with their predatory instincts are they? Is this game dangerous at all? Unfortunately the “fish-in-a-barrell” hunting style is modeled on actual Big Game Hunting that uses professional hunters, trackers, vehicles, and guaranteed trophies. As Pick says in the film, “all you have to do is point and shoot.” In Hostel, the “hunters” have just eliminated the pretense because the prey in Hard Target might as well be tied to a chair. Fouchon even says they should go to “Eastern Europe…we could work there for years.” Maybe in an alternate universe, Fouchon and Pick survive and start “Elite Hunting” (the fictional organization that brings superrich would-be-torturers together with unwitting victims in Hostel).

Henriksen gives little hints at the character's inner life. A professed Method actor, his microexpressions range from bemusement to loathing.

So, the point of the game isn’t to exercise your personal mastery of your body and mind; the point is to “feel alive.” Fouchon tells a timid client, “you paid us a half million dollars to find out if you were alive or dead!” This is why Fouchon’s second-in-command, Pick, snidely jokes about his “feelings” being hurt; they’re all sociopaths. When Pick starts freaking out at the end Fouchon chastises him, “hunting drunks in alleys make you soft?” Here we come to the zenith of Fouchon’s delusional hypocrisy.

Notice the utter contempt and hatred on Henriksen's face as he stares at the recently suckered client. There are so many scenes like this, where he's away from the main action doing incredible things with his face.

Fouchon views himself as above his business. We see this in Henriksen’s face as he plays Beethoven and delivers his sales pitch to a weasley yuppie. He is the Superman—someone who doesn’t have to play by society’s arbitrary rules and is untouched by conventional morality. “It’s always been the privilege of the few to hunt the many,” he waxes to the client;”…God, why didn’t he go fishing” he laments when the client won’t execute an old wounded man. Fouchon is delusional. He thinks his client’s are addicts, but it’s he who lives for the hunt. When the same tepid client is killed by his frightened prey, Fouchon takes up the reigns and personally hunts him down. When Pick is reading Chance’s decorated service record you can see a gleam in Henriksen’s eye. The first time in the whole movie that we see him smile, his own personal Hans Landa moment, is when he lets Chance ride off into the sunset—presumably so the hunt could be more exciting.

"Au revoir, Shosanna!"

Like the protagonist of The Most Dangerous Game he’s bored, and he thinks that a powerful opponent like Boudreaux will satisfy his malaise. Unfortunately, Fouchon doesn’t know himself as well as he thinks he does. The most damning evidence of this comes in the form of Wilford Brimley, who plays Chance’s old drunk uncle that raised him Yoda-style in the bayou. He gets the drop on Fouchon’s whole crew, kills several and flamboyantly thumbs his nose at them. For some reason Fouchon stops everyone from attacking the old man saying, “Boudreaux’s our target.” Now, by this point in the movie the only narrative reason they have for hunting Boudreaux is because he’s challenging prey; so why not redirect his attention to Brimley’s character? Hadn’t he already proved himself a worthy adversary by killing a half dozen of Fouchon’s “dogs” and laughing in his face?

Fouchon's control slowly breaks down, but Henriksen never takes the character into 'Scarface' territory. There's something childlike about his rage and posturing. Here he is throwing a tantrum after Wilford Brimley puts him in his place. His frightening facade is completely gone by this point in the film.

In spite of all his affectations, Fouchon really isn’t interested in a genuine contest; he’s just like his clients. Towards the end, Pick suggests taking Chance out with a rifle from a helicopter but Fouchon says that “any pinhead can take him from the air. I want to take him on the ground.” But then later, outside the warehouse that serves as the film’s final set-piece he says:

Let me review the tactical situation for you, gentlemen. Boudreaux is wounded; he’s been pursued, harried across miles of open country. Now he’s cornered and outnumbered 20 to 1.

It seems like any pinhead could take him with those odds too. So, where’s the thrill? Fouchon is the one who’s actually “gone soft.” Pick is just honest about the fact that they usually play with a stacked deck. The incredible thing about Henriksen’s performance is that he brings these two contradictory sides together so well: the God and the coward. In the beginning Fouchon’s pseudo-philosophizing and political doubletalk seem genuine, and he is an extremely frightening figure. However, by the time he’s throwing temper tantrums and shooting his own clients, his Napoleon complex has come into full view. Henriksen shows him getting pleasure from every act of violence—from Pick cutting off the sleazy guy’s ear to shooting one of his clients because they were burning to death. Henriksen shows Fouchon’s sadism with subtlety, and he shows him for what he truly is—a very small man with a great deal of money who doesn’t know what to do with himself. All his big words and glares can’t change the fact that he isn’t satisfied with his life. In an odd way the character reminded me of a wealthier version of Michel from Robert Bresson’s classic film, Pickpocket —he has all this philosophy to explain to him why he’s better than everyone else, but the way he exercises this “superiority” makes him weaker and more revolting.

Lance Henriksen is a brilliant character actor; his greatest strength is his commitment. When he becomes a character, he becomes that character, and he doesn’t let a bad script get in the way of his craft. In a way, he’s a symbol of what makes B movies so great. For a film buff a B movie can focus your attention on certain technical details known as excess—elements of the filmmakers’ craft that stand out against the mise-en-scene and remind you its all just a movie. When you can see the excess, the parts of the film that do work and achieve a greater degree of versimillitude can be analyzed more closely. In this article I only touch on all the ways that Henriksen’s brilliant Method acting provides layer after layer of subtext for the eager viewer to chew on, even in the face of a text that paints with the broadest strokes possible. Hard Target may be an awful movie, but it features a dynamic stand-out performance by the B-fan’s A+ star—Lance Henriksen.

6 Responses to "Spotlight on—Lance Henriksen in John Woo’s Hard Target"
  1. Red Planet says:

    I have always wondered about people who laugh aloud while reading alone. What talent did they receive from their Maker that was denied me?

    I have read much, over many decades, never uttering an intelligible sound, much less a laugh, and yet I found myself chortling explosively while reading your review of Hard Target.

    It began with the line “Lance has absolutely no fear of a bad script,” continued with “teams of killers in jeeps dogging the already malnourished and ragged bums every step of the way,” and, perhaps best of all, the image of Wilford Brimley raising Jean Claude Van Damme “Yoda-style” in the Louisiana swamps. By the way, is that pronounced “damn,” like the durable English curse, or is it an abbreviated “damn me,” as a low-brow Brit might use it: “Dam’me, I’ve gone off and forgotten me bowler!”

    Nothing has ever awakened a desire in me to view a Jean Claude Van Damme movie. And yet, your review of one has given me the gift of laughter. Now, I’m tempted.

    • Randomaniac says:

      Red,

      The movie inspires it, because I was laughing my butt off the entire time. One of the most (unintentionally) hilarious movies I’ve ever seen. Thanks for the great comment.

      David

  2. I’m in hearty agreement on every point in this entire article. Nicely done. Including the stills is great, I was mesmerized by Mr. Henriksen myself, while at the same time continually fighting an overwhelming urge to want to cut off Van Damage’s Mulleted Jheri Curl at every turn.

    • Randomaniac says:

      Jane,

      Thanks for the nice comments! I had to include the stills, because all his little microexpressions are the only good part of the movie. Guillermo Del Toro once said, on a commentary, that all of acting was “looks” as in, all the little faces the actor makes. Henriksen really outdoes himself with his “looks” in ‘Hard Target’. Thanks again.

      David

  3. le0pard13 says:

    Nailed it! Lance Henriksen is the only thing that makes Hard Target worth seeing. John Woo got screwed over by the studios with one, plus being saddled with JCVD. Your post made for one great read. Thanks.

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