After a string of hits in the 1980s and early 90s in his native China -- with such films as A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992) earning praise from critics and audiences alike -- acclaimed director John
Woo was invited to come to Hollywood to make his first English-language action film in 1993. Woo's unique style, particularly in the shooting of action scenes, was fresh and exciting (the Criterion Collection referred to his work as "violence as
poetry"), and his slow-motion shootouts, Mexican standoffs and other stylistic touches have since been imitated and referenced in Western cinema by many other filmmakers, with such 'Wooisms' evident in films like Reservoir Dogs and The
Matrix to name but two examples. By the time Hard Boiled was released, John Woo was already established as a respected auteur of world cinema. But his transition to Hollywood was anything but smooth, and it is perhaps fair to say that Woo was not
treated with the respect that someone of his standing should have been. In this episode of Cutting Edge, we'll be taking a look at the issues Woo encountered during the making of his first American production, Hard Target , in 1993.
Tom Pollock, chairman of Universal Pictures
After The Killer had become something of a cult hit in the United States, it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling. Tom Pollock, the chairman of Universal Pictures, had seen the film and had been impressed, and following Woo's completion of Hard
Boiled in Hong Kong in 1992, Pollock offered Woo a chance to work in the United States. Shockingly, Universal was not keen to have Woo direct a full length feature, as they felt that his limited command of the English language would cause problems on a
film set. After some convincing by Hard Target's late producer, James Jacks, Pollock eventually came around to the idea but still had little faith in Woo's abilities, so Universal insisted on hiring director Sam Raimi as an executive producer on the
film; feeling he could step in and take over directing duties if Woo was not up to the job. Things were already off to a bad start.
Director John Woo with Jean-Claude Van Damme
on the set of Hard Target
Woo was offered several scripts, but eventually settled on Chuck Pfarrer's Hard Target. Jean-Claude Van Damme was cast in the lead role of Chance Boudreaux, with Lance Henriksen on board as the villain Emil Fouchon; both actors were already big fans of
John Woo and relished the chance to work with him. After a tight shooting schedule, the editing process began. The initial rough cut of the film was over two hours long, with a 116 minute workprint version created after further refinements. These two
versions are available unofficially in trading circles, and the 116 minute cut --which is time-coded and features a temp score, rough sound effects mix and no ADR work -- is often mistakenly referred to as being Woo's director's cut. Further cuts for
timing and pacing issues were made, and some additional reshoots were also undertaken. One such example is the final confrontation between Boudreaux and Fouchon, with the reshoots incorporating more martial arts fighting in order to cater to Van Damme's
established fan base.
Targeting an R rating at the MPAA
A final release version was eventually created that ran for around 99 minutes, and it was around this time that Hard Target was submitted to the MPAA for a rating. Woo was contracted to deliver an R rated picture, but after a while the MPAA came back
with their decision -- Woo was handed an NC-17 rating.
Frustratingly, the MPAA declined to cite which specific scenes were problematic in order to avoid the ratings board being accused
of censorship. Regardless, Woo and his editor made cuts and the film was resubmitted to the MPAA, but it once again came back with an NC-17 rating. Sources differ on how many times Hard Target went back to the MPAA for a rating, but the general consensus
is that the film was submitted six or seven times before an R rating was granted, with around four minutes of footage having being removed for its final US release print.
Cut Scenes: Opening credits
To begin with, the opening credits sequence (with writer Chuck Pfarrer playing the ill-fated Douglas Binder) received some minor cuts for violence, but Woo also re-edited and resequenced the scene with some alternate footage for reasons unknown. These
changes do not appear to have been undertaken for censorship reasons, as the alternate shots do not feature any contentious material, so they will not be discussed here. But we will cite some violent shots that differ between the R rated version and the
uncut 99-minute version of the film (which we'll be referring to as the NC-17 version for ease).
To begin with, footage that shows Binder trying to painfully remove an arrow from his shoulder was reduced. After he succeeds, Binder uses an exploding gas canister to dispatch two enemies riding on motorcycles.
Moments later, Binder was originally seen to be struck by three arrows; one in his shoulder, one in his leg, and a final arrow that enters through his back and emerges out of his chest which kills him. In the R version, Binder is seen being struck by
only two arrows, with sight of the second bolt hitting his leg being excised entirely. Some alternative shots were used to hide the offending footage in the R version, but an ugly continuity error is now present thanks to these changes.
As Binder falls through the pier in the R version, the arrow in his leg is clearly visible, despite us not seeing it being fired due to the MPAA cuts. Another trim made as the third arrow strikes Binder has the annoying effect of removing one of Woo's
trademark freeze frame shots, and the final shot of Binder's body drifting downstream was also removed entirely.
Cut Scenes: Mardi Gras graveyard showdown
No other MPAA changes occur until the gloriously over-the-top showdown in the Mardi Gras graveyard. Although the MPAA did not give explicit notes on what was to be removed, it would appear that the sheer amount of heavy gunfire and bloody impact shots
into bodies were the key factors in the ratings board awarding an NC-17 rating. As with the opening scene, some cuts appear to have been made for stylistic reasons rather than censorial ones, with alternative footage being used in a handful of
non-violent sequences. For example, some cuts made during the editing process remove the sight of Boudreaux performing somersaults as well as some shots showing general gunfire directed to camera. It's worth mentioning that during post-production, Van
Damme worked with another editor to craft his own cut of the film in order to insert more shots of himself into the picture, and at the time he was quoted as saying:
"People pay their money to see me, not to see Lance Henriksen."
It would appear that some of Van Damme's changes made their way into the R version, and these shots are either missing or replaced with alternate shots in the NC-17 version.
With regards to censorship changes, the first alterations occur as Douvee and Natasha arrive at the warehouse in order to help out Boudreaux. Boudreaux dispatching three enemies was heavily cut, with the first thug's death reduced by around two thirds,
and the deaths of the second and third enemy removed entirely from the film in the R version.
The next cuts occur as Douvee and Natasha engage some of Fouchon's men. The explicit sight of one enemy being impaled through the throat by one of Douvee's arrows was removed entirely, and Natasha unloading into a bearded enemy's groin was reduced by the
use of an insert shot of pigeons lifted from the previous scene being reinserted here in order to cover some violent footage.
Seconds later, more changes occur as Boudreaux shoots another enemy whilst hanging from a rope and Douvee is shot in the leg. Multiple juicy bullet impacts into one enemy's chest were heavily reduced, and the close-up of Douvee's leg wound was
substituted with a less-graphic wide shot. Chance's gunning down of two more enemies was also heavily cut to remove multiple bullet impacts into their bodies.
More cuts occur immediately afterwards as Boudreaux shoots at more of Fouchon's men, with further reductions made to bloody squib impacts on various enemies' bodies.
Perhaps the most drastic changes occur as Boudreaux whittles down the last of Fouchon's men before taking out Van Cleef in a show-stopping death scene. Numerous changes were made to this sequence, reducing the amount of gunfire exchanged between
Boudreaux and Van Cleef; the bloody impacts into the grenade-wielding enemy who is shot through the window; a henchman being shot repeatedly in the stomach and groin; and the huge amount of bloody impact shots into Van Cleef's body. The length of time
that Van Cleef takes to die was also heavily reduced.
A small cut occurs a short while afterwards, when the last henchman is killed with a shotgun blast. The explicit, slow-motion pouring of blood from his wound was eliminated from the R version.
The final changes made occur during the fight between Boudreaux and Fouchon. A rant by Fouchon where he brags about having killed in every corner of the globe is missing in the R rated version, along with the removal of some non-contentious dialogue and
a slight reordering of shots, but the MPAA changes to violence remove two instances of bloodier footage; these being the close-up of an impact shot into Fouchon's shoulder and Fouchon spitting blood after Chance's kick to his chest.
Hitting the Target
After Hard Target was finally awarded its R rating, the film did well at the box office, and was the second highest grossing film the week of its release in the United States. It made just over $74 million at the worldwide box office, which is just over
$121 million in today's money.
However, Woo found both his initial experience of working in Hollywood and the MPAA ratings process
to be a somewhat frustrating experience, as he recounted in an interview with Vibe magazine in October 1993:
There are so many politics and games and egos here. I just haven't gotten used to the studio system. In Hong Kong, I have more freedom. Here, we also have to be concerned about the ratings. I need to tone down a lot of the violence. Well, everything has
to be toned down.
It is disappointing that a respected international visionary like John Woo was not given the proper treatment at the hands of the Hollywood studio system when he emigrated to the United States, particularly as Hard Target was his first American film.
What is the sense in hiring a respected international director for his shooting style, only to water it down for Western audiences? Woo's directorial finesse would go on to be similarly muted with the release of his 1996 action film Broken Arrow ,
although he was afforded far more flexibility and control when he made Face/Off for Paramount Pictures in 1997, with actor Michael Douglas serving as an executive producer.
Hard Target is available
uncut on Blu-ray disc
US viewers advised to target the Blu-ray
The NC-17 version of Hard Target was never released on VHS or DVD in the United States, although it was released intact on those formats in many major territories around the world. The good news is that fans of the film in the United States can pick up
the film uncut on Blu-ray. Although an individual release has been not been released in the United States at the time this episode was made, the NC-17 version of Hard Target is available in the Van Damme 5-Movie Action Pack, alongside Lionheart (1990),
Street Fighter (1994), Sudden Death (1995) and The Quest (1996). Alternatively, American fans can import the Region A Hong Kong Blu-ray or the Region Free UK Blu-ray, both of which are fully uncut and will play on all American
Blu-ray players without issue.
In closing, it would be nice to think that John Woo one day gets to release a true director's cut of Hard Target. Although it is a rough workprint, the 116 minute cut of the film is pure John Woo. Featuring far more of his trademark touches and editing
decisions, it is a more daring and much more involving version of the film that bests even the 99-minute NC-17 version, with more action sequences and storyline development. Failing all else, at least fans have access to a extended version in high
definition without any MPAA cuts, which thankfully beats the official R rated version in every respect.
Cutting Edge Video Episode 27: Hard Target