(Welcome to DTV Descent, a series that explores the weird and wild world of direct-to-video sequels to theatrically released movies. In this edition, we see if Scott Adkins can follow in the spin-kicking footsteps of Jean-Claude Van Damme.)

Depending on your affinity for the action genre, the name Jean-Claude Van Damme might mean different things to you. For some he’s an action star, for some he’s a has-been, and for others the news that he’s still alive and kicking might come as a complete surprise. From his first big role (as a villain) in the ridiculous and highly entertaining No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) through a slew action gems casting him as the hero on into the 90s, Van Damme was a big deal for action fans. Sure the quality of his films tapered off, but for a while there he was a Belgian god. One of his best is his collaboration with John Woo for 1993’s Hard Target, and for fans who like their action mixed with healthy dollops of absurdity it remains a classic. Seriously, if you haven’t watched it in a few years (or at all) you owe it to yourself to give it a spin.

Scott Adkins is one of modern action cinema’s most exciting and talented stars, and in 2016 he starred in a direct-to-video sequel to that Van Damme hit. Does it do the original justice? Is it anywhere near as thrilling or crazy? Are there any doves?! Let’s find out together, shall we? Keep reading for a look at the DTV sequel to Hard Target.

The Beginning

New Orleans is known for sketchy behavior within its city limits, and for Emil Fouchon that’s all the invitation he needs to start his own business. He sells the experience of hunting the most dangerous game, and his latest excursion sees a wealthy “sportsman” tracking a homeless man through town — if the man reaches the river he wins $10k, but only if they don’t find and kill him first. (Spoiler… they do.) When the man’s daughter comes to town looking for him she crosses paths with a homeless veteran turned amateur herpetologist named Chance Boudreaux, and soon the pair discover the truth behind her father’s death. Along with a female detective hungry for a juicy case, they become a thorn in Emil’s side, and in return he sends all the firepower he can muster their way. Unfortunately for them, Chance is a hard target to hit.

The DTV Plot

Hunting humans is an international sport, and Jonah Aldrich has set up shop in a country open to such activities — Myanmar. Rather than focus on society’s underdogs, though, he likes to give his clients a challenge, so after seeing Wes Baylor impress in an underground MMA fight in Thailand he offers the man $1 million for a single fight in Myanmar. It’s only after Wes arrives that he discovers the specifics. It’s no straight fight, and instead he’s given a short head start with six paying hunters, a handful of bad guys, and some corrupt members of the country’s military on his ass. It’s an impossible challenge for anyone, but it’s especially hard for a disgraced MMA champion who’s been hiding out after accidentally killing his best friend in the ring. The odds are against him, but Wes is a hard target too.

Talent Shift

As mentioned, Van Damme began his career as an action star in the 1980s, and prior to this film he had already headlined the likes of Kickboxer (1989), Double Impact (1991), and Universal Soldier (1992). John Woo was already a huge success too in his native Hong Kong with action classics like The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992) to his name, and he made his English-language debut with Hard Target. It was a hard road at times, and his film was cut more than a little to appease the MPAA, but the finished movie is undeniably a Woo production with the filmmaker delivering big, crazy fun on a modest budget. Similarly, writer Chuck Pfarrer had already earned his genre stripes with two 1990 releases (Navy Seals, Darkman). Throw in Lance Henriksen, Arnold Vosloo, Kasi Lemmons, and a cinematographer (Russell Carpenter) familiar with capturing action shenanigans (Death Warrant, 1990; The Perfect Weapon, 1991; True Lies, 1994) and you have a team ready to bring the insane goods.

As is typical for DTV films (sequels or otherwise), the talent roster on Hard Target 2 isn’t nearly as impressive. Adkins actually had a small role in a DTV Van Damme film called The Shepherd (2008) before landing his first true leading role in 2009’s Ninja. He’s co-starred in numerous films since and headlined nearly as many fantastic action romps including Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012), Close Range (2015), and Eliminators (2016). He’s a phenomenal fighter and athlete, and when paired with the right director and allowed to truly flex the results are just brilliantly fun. Unfortunately for this film, director Roel Reiné isn’t quite it. He’s made something of a career out of DTV sequels — ten at last count — and this is probably the best of them thanks in large part to Adkins. There are three (?) writers credited here, but the only one of note is George Huang who also wrote and directed the crazy good black comedy Swimming with Sharks (1994). It’s unclear what he brought to this movie.

How the Sequel Respects the Original

There may not be any continued characters here, but the sequel does stick with a basic copy of the original’s plot — our hero finds himself caught up in the most dangerous game. The details differ, but he once again meets a woman who needs his help and once again faces off against a bunch of morally bankrupt killers who he has to dispatch with a mix of fisticuffs and firearms. More specifically, the film does offer a few nods to Woo’s 90s gem including an extreme amount of slow-mo shots, some conspicuously placed doves, and a villain whose weapon of choice is a long-barreled, single-shot pistol. To its credit, the sequel also lets our hero’s lady kick a little butt too.

How the Sequel Shits on the Original

Fight choreography in films has come a long way, so I’m comfortable saying that while Van Damme was clearly a talented martial artist the fights are just better executed by Adkins… in general. Unfortunately for this film, he doesn’t get to do very much of it in part because he’s not given a worthy foe despite the unwise attention paid to a bland group of hunters. We get a handful of fun beats, but it feels too frequently like he’s pulling his punches and saving his best stuff for whatever project comes next. Similarly, Henriksen in the original is no fighter but he is an absolute badass, and Robert Knepper’s big bad here just can’t compete on the charisma front. The action is less effective overall, but worse, it fails to even approach the original’s absolute bonkers execution and instead plays it straight and ineffective. A few things we get in Woo’s masterpiece — Van Damme punches a snake, Van Damme surfs on a moving motorcycle and flips over an oncoming truck, Van Damme shoots a guy a dozen times and then spin kick him in the head, and Wilford “Diabeetus” Brimley rides a horse towards us while an epic explosion goes off behind him. We get none of that beautiful nonsense here, and all due respect to Rhona Mitra but seeing her walk away from a slow-mo explosion is several steps down from Brimley. The addition of CG hurts as well, and time and effort spent on both Wes’ backstory and his female sidekick’s subplot does little but drag the film down.

Conclusion

My Adkins love continues to grow, and the last couple of years have already delivered some of his best with the unmissable likes of Accident Man (2018), The Debt Collector (2018), Triple Threat (2019), and Avengement (2019), but this stab at the DTV sequel game — neither his first nor his last — is something of a disappointment. The only thing an action movie has to do well is the action, and while this one barely passes muster it’s a pale follow-up to the mad brilliance of Woo’s and Van Damme’s original.

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