2016 has been referred to as the year or the unwanted sequel numerous times, with plentiful examples of sequels underperforming, but here’s a sequel I actually hadn’t even heard about until last month; Hard Target 2. I’m not sure if there’s even enough name recognition for 1993’s Hard Target anymore to resurrect it for a DTV sequel now, and it tends to be best remembered purely for the fact that it was John Woo’s American directorial debut. I haven’t seen it in years but I remember it being one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s better early nineties efforts.
Neither Woo or Van Damme are involved in this sequel at all, which is only really a sequel in the thematic sense. As with the first movie, it involves rich people who capture or trick poor people into being hunted for their entertainment, but doesn’t have any recurring characters or locations.
It’s actually a little surprising that Van Damme isn’t in this at all considering how he’s not averse to revisiting old movies of his and the lead this time around is frequent DTV action star Scott Adkins, who’s worked with Van Damme on multiple occasions. Adkins may get saddled with thankless roles in his bigger mainstream movies (see the recent Doctor Strange for a prime example of this) but he often gets a chance to truly shine in the DTV world, and this is no different.
Dropping the military background Van Damme’s Cajun character had in the original, Adkins plays Wes Baylor here, a professional MMA fighter. Hard Target 2 actually puts it’s protagonist in an interesting situation to begin with, rather than having his wife be murdered on anything like that, he’s taking part in an important fight against a good friend of his and channelling his anger to try and comeback after losing the first two rounds, hits his opponent so hard he accidentally kills him in the ring.
Devastated by his friend’s death, he travels to Thailand and begins taking part in cheap fights for “$400 and 2 shots of tequila”. He’s soon noticed by a wealthy businessman named Aldrich (Robert Knepper) who hires him for a fight with a million dollar payout. Of course, it’s all a con, and as soon as he arrives in the jungles of Myanmar he learns that a bunch of wealthy people have paid good money to hunt him down, and his only way out it to get back to the Thai border before any of the heavily armed hunters catch him.
There’s some effort put into making these not just a group of faceless killers; there’s a father-son team who aren’t both as enthusiastic, a woman whose father was a big game hunter, a young game developer who made millions off first-person shooters and more. Prison Break’s Robert Knepper is a fine choice for a successor to Lance Hendricksen, who played the slimy villain role in the original.
After its effective, and effectively brief set-up, the vast majority of the film concerns the hunt itself, in which we essentially get to witness the hunters get taken out one by one. There are some complications along the way, involving infighting among the hunters and a local woman becoming roped in on Adkins’ side. At one point it looks to be threatening to put a silly romantic subplot in – which would make no sense considering the life-threatening situation they’re in, but thankfully avoids it.
Dutch director Roel Reiné, who’s filmography is littered with DTV sequels, stages numerous action scenes that never feel hampered by the budget, but at the same time there’s nothing particularly inventive here. He doesn’t attempt to imitate any of John Woo’s stylings, which is probably a good idea, but doesn’t demonstrate any of his own either.
This movie pretty much delivers on its well-worn premise but never really finds any way to rise above it. The mental state of Adkins’ character at the start and his learning to deal with it is something that could have really been explored further but it almost completely dropped after the set-up. The film also has no real reason to have bothered with calling itself Hard Target 2, it could have had an original title or just positioned itself as a remake/reboot and wouldn’t have suffered. If the choice was in an attempt to appeal to Van Damme fans then it’s not necessary, Adkins has proven himself to be just as good an action lead as Van Damme ever was, and seeing this so soon after Doctor Strange does make me wonder why he’s never managed to score a decent Hollywood role.