FILM / Things that make you go 'Woo': Adam Mars-Jones reviews John Woo's Hard Target and Rob Weiss' Amongst Friends

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The Independent Culture
The star of John Woo's new film, Hard Target (18), is six foot of lethal muscle, a conscienceless killer who strikes without warning. You've guessed it, it's a cameo performance from a rattlesnake, and the reason it strikes without warning is simple: Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing the nominal hero, has bitten off its tail before leaving it draped round a branch to ambush the bad guys who are stalking him through the bayou.

Van Damme is the oddest of the current line-up of physical action stars. It's possible to construct an argument for our culture needing a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone, but Van Damme is that strange thing: a wannabe who made it. His martial arts repertoire concentrates more on kick- boxing than his competitors' and perhaps it's just an atavistic feeling of British fair play that makes savagely efficient kicking seem an unlikely component of heroism. Van Damme is certainly the most graceful of the bunch - he studied ballet concurrently with bodybuilding - but how much grace do you actually want if what you're watching is men beating each other to pulp?

Hard Target's Louisiana setting gives Van Damme's Belgian-French accent an excuse, but why go to the trouble? Schwarzenegger's robotic cadences never put off anybody who was going to like his films in the first place - in fact it was a virtue, part of his irreducible 'bareness'. He refused to be transformed. His voice served notice that he wasn't in competition with Meryl Streep.

Van Damme's 'bareness' is much more marginal, though the camera does its best to consolidate it in his first few scenes. Before we see the hero's face as a whole, we're given huge close-ups of his eyes, and of an ear with a discreet earring. Perhaps John Woo overestimates the status of his star's face as an icon; this way of introducing him simply makes the stardom more baffling. Van Damme's only distinctive feature is his hair, which he wears in unmilitary ringlets at the back (suitable for describing arcs in slow-motion fights) in a way that would be unthinkable in the other musclemen, whose hair aspires along with the rest of their bodies to the condition of metal.

John Woo's camera keeps using rhetoric that Van Damme's rather neutral persona can't live up to. When the hero, after ritual refusals, accepts the heroine's plea to help her find her father, a forklift of oil drums moves aside in slow motion to reveal him planted in front of her car, embracing destiny. It doesn't quite work out that way. If Van Damme was a hitchhiker he wouldn't get many lifts.

The film's script calls for ex-military down-and-outs to be stalked across New Orleans and its environs by a virtual motorcade of death - cars and motorcycle riders escorting murderous plutocrats, who pay hugely for the privilege of hunting human prey. The screenwriter, Chuck Pfarrer, is savvy enough to realise that criminal activity on such a scale would attract official attention sooner rather than later, and so has written into his script a handy police strike.

Quentin Tarantino has praised John Woo's expertise as an action director, and since he is scheduled to provide a script for a future Woo film, there seems no reason to doubt his sincerity. But a film like Reservoir Dogs gave an idea of how it might feel to be involved in violence, while one like Hard Target isn't interested in any such realism, only in authenticity of a trivial sort. Woo insisted on every gun fired on screen carrying a full charge of powder, and made sure that the sound of a shell casing hitting the floor had the proper brassy ring. Authentic details of this sort only make the set-pieces more absurd, when Woo shows, for instance, the hero kicking a man off a motorcycle ridden at full tilt. You could certainly do that, if you really wanted to - if you had your heart set on it. What you couldn't do is use your leg afterwards.

Rob Weiss's first feature Amongst Friends (18) is also haunted by Reservoir Dogs. It's a reservoir puppy of a film, callowly quoting themes and motifs while leaving out the things that made them worth imitating. The celebrated ear-severing in Tarantino's film (restaged in Hard Target, as it happens, with a pair of scissors) is recalled in an elderly gangster's anecdote. The camera dutifully whirls around a table of people planning skulduggery. A villain pops open the boot of a car and reveals a horrible trophy.

The basic premise of the film is that rich kids growing up in suburban Long Island turn to crime for the excitement of it, and the feeling of being real. The story, though, is poorly constructed, so that for instance it takes some time to work out which of the people in front of us is represented by the voice-over we hear. It turns out to be Andy (Steve Parlavecchio), who a few years ago let his best friend Trevor take his place on a drug run. Trevor got caught and was put away. Meanwhile Billy (Joseph Lindsey) has become something of a big man in the local underworld, and treats Andy more and more as an errand boy.

There are the makings of a decent melodrama here, but Weiss makes things hard for himself in a number of ways. One is having the most complex character, Trevor, who needs to be both softer and harder than the others (he's gentle but has suffered), played by the weakest actor (Patrick McGaw). McGraw can't really get away with lines like 'You could never understand. Try dying, 'cos that's what it's like.' Another is giving the film's moment of tragic realisation, when he must carry out a killing in person which he planned for someone else to do, to a character, Billy, whose point of view we have not previously been invited anywhere near.

The script gets positively derailed at one point, as if someone had taken Reservoir Dogs out of the video in the room where Rob Weiss was writing and replaced it with Family Business. A robbery goes wrong and for a while things look extremely bad for our aspiring villains until Andy manages to convince the offended party, semi-retired Jack Trattner (David Stepkin), that his late grandfather was a partner in crime, way back when. Instead of torture and death, the kids get more small-time errands to run.

After this detour into comedy, Amongst Friends can't get back to the serious tone it covets for itself. But at least Mira Sorvino, who acted as casting director in addition to playing the romantic lead, has had the pleasure of putting her grandfather Ford into the movie as the semi-senile gangster, Fish, who keeps talking about healthy diet and lifestyle no matter what villainy is going on around him.

(Photographs omitted)