Sunday, January 26, 2014

View In Peace: James "Jim" Jacks and Hard Target

Earlier this week, the death of movie producer James "Jim" Jacks quietly hit the news and interwebs in the form of a few brief articles and a couple detailed write ups from friends and collaborators like Kevin Smith and Harry Knowles.  His name might not strike the household familiarity of say a Jerry Bruckheimer or to a lesser extent Joel Silver but Jacks amassed a list of timeless classics like Jean-Claude Van Damme as a greasy mulleted samurai in Hard Target, the action ensemble western classic Tombstone, Richard Linklater's seminal Dazed and Confused, Kevin Smith's maligned but awesome Mallrats, Benecio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones' Rambo update The Hunted and his most successful work, 1999's The MummyThe Mummy was followed by two hit sequels and a successful spin off, The Scorpion King; which has had now spawned 3 direct to video sequels (the latest featuring Michael Biehn!).

A former wall street analyst who turned to screenwriting before working acquisitions at Universal and segueing into producing, Jacks is said to have been a hardcore movie lover.  1993 was a banner year for him as Hard Target, Dazed and Confused and Tombstone all hit theaters across the country.  Each holds it's own place in my and cinema's lore as they have all transcended generations and still resonate 20 years on.  Even though each title is held in high regard, at least two of them never matched the original intent of Jacks and his partners in celluloid.

By the early 90's, Jean-Claude Van Damme was the still the hot, young guy coming up the action ladder following Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger while competing with fellow new to the scene martial artist, Steven Seagal.  After a string of successful, low budget karate movies, 1992's Universal Soldier was his first decent budget, more mainstream action affair that had a talented director and studio support.  The flick performed well around the world and JCVD tried his hand at further broadening his audience with Nowhere To Run, a modern day Shane where VD protects a mother and her kids from evil land owners.  With nary a roundhouse kick or full split to be seen, Nowhere To Run might have fulfilled the Belgian's desire to try something different but audiences did not turn out and grosses were less than his previous 3 films.

Hard Target was the beginning of Van Damme's real push into the big leagues (it was also my second R-rated movie in a theater).  Universal saw his potential and figured with the right support, he could break into the $50-60 million grosses and join Arnold and Sly at the top of the mountain.  Former Navy Seal Chuck Pfarrer's (Navy Seals!) script is the story of Chance Boudreaux, a Merchant Marine struggling to make a living who helps out a young lawyer searching for her missing father.  Turns out her dad was a Vietnam veteran who agreed to be the subject of a twisted game that finds rich hunters paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to track and kill their fellow man.  Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo turn up as the dastardly duo behind the sick scheme and it's up to Van Damme, the chick from Drop Zone (Yancy Butler) and mother fucking Wilford Brimley to stop them.

I'm not sure whose idea it was to go after noted Hong Kong director John Woo but the mayhem maestro behind The Killer signed on for his first American feature after Jacks and Universal set their sights on him.  Van Damme gave his stamp of approval but unfortunately, the $18 million production would be awash with problems from Van Damme being given far reaching creative control to Woo's unfamiliarity with the English language and American filmmaking process.  See, in Hong Kong, movies shoot for a while, stop and assess then continue on.  You can't do that kind of thing in America as studios need product to fill their slate so Woo was stranded without his team, working in a language not his own and a nervous studio watching over his shoulder.  Universal enlisted Evil Dead and Darkman director Sam Raimi to the production, ready to take over if Woo fell behind.  Even though Raimi was in awe of Woo and didn't think he would be able to bring anything better to the project.

After re-shooting the final confrontation between Van Damme and Henriksen, editing the picture would find the Muscles From Brussels presenting his own version along with Woo's cut that had to be trimmed down to avoid an NC-17 rating.  Jacks supported Woo's version as they didn't want a typical "Van Damme movie".  Test screenings were horrendous but finally on August 20th of 1993, Hard Target hit theaters, opening to $10 million on it's way to a $32 million total.  The tally was higher than Nowhere to Run but less than Universal Soldier.  Critics would deem it Van Damme's best but Woo's worst.  As it stands, Hard Target is a well made and violent action picture that does it's best to mesh Woo's human drama mixed with balletic gun violence and Van Damme's high kicking super heroics.  You get way too much slow motion, lots of close ups, bad puns, shoot'em ups, kick'em ups, jack rabbits slapping bears, horses, snake smacking, Mardi Gras, Lance Henriksen being set on fire, mama's taking chances and Ted Raimi saying "I ain't got no change, man!".

Post mortem, Van Damme would dismiss Hard Target for having a bad script and too much "John Woo bullshit" but having some good action and making him look strong.  Woo would remain political and say they did the best they could with what they had and didn't close the door on working with Van Damme again.  It never happened.  Van Damme would go on to his biggest hit, Timecop, before turning down a huge deal with Universal and sliding into a career funk filled with drug problems and messy divorces.  Woo would go on to find success after success, working with John Travolta, Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise on Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission Impossible II before returning to Chinese cinema following the poorly received Windtalkers and Paycheck.

Come back next time as we check out Jacks' work on a fellow, troubled production: Tombstone.  Until then, enjoy Van Damme beating up some thugs after having some tragic gumbo.

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