Hard Target 2 (2016) [IMDB]
Directed by Roel Reine
Starring Scott Adkins, Robert Knepper, Ann Truong, Rhona Mitra
Hard Target 2 is a pale imitation of John Woo's first American film, disguised as a sequel and released direct-to-video 23 years later. It's poorly written and paced, but has enough stunts and thrills to satisfy a lot of action fans. An athletic performance by Scott Adkins provides the bulk of the film's appeal - and Roel Reine's film is the British actor's best starring role since 2013's Ninja: Shadow of a Tear. In these lean times for action fans, we'll take what we can get.
In terms of its basic premise, Hard Target 2 sticks rigidly to the formula established by Woo's film. Adkins plays Wes "The Jailer" Baylor, a down-and-out MMA fighter condemned to fight in underground contests in Thailand after accidentally killing his best friend in the ring. With the promise of a fight with a big payday, Baylor is lured to Myanmar by Aldrich (Robert Knepper) and his henchman Madden (Temuera Morrison). Upon arrival, our hero learns he is to be hunted by several wealthy psychopaths who have paid Aldrich for the pleasure of tracking and killing a human being.
Not least due to its dramatically smaller budget, Hard Target 2 is unsurprisingly inferior to Woo's original in every way. They're game, but Knepper and Morrison are no replacement for Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo, still one of the most brilliantly evil duos in action cinema history. The script has nothing of the emotional heft or social elements of Chuck Pfarrer's work on the original, and the familiar jungles of Thailand are a much less interesting location than the heady streets of New Orleans. For his part, Reine can hardly be blamed for not measuring up to Woo's masterly handling of action - no-one ever has.
With all this being said, Hard Target 2 is a respectable entry into the DTV market. For the budget, there's a fair amount of impressive spectacle. Baylor's last fight in Las Vegas and his bout on the roof of a Bangkok skyscraper look much more expensive than they are, and there are plentiful pyrotechnics to enjoy, not to mention motorcycle and boat stunts. The film exudes a feel of solid workmanship, largely due to the accomplished Thai crew. Thailand is a popular location for action films for a very good reason: crews there are very experienced with this kind of project, and their skills compensate to some extent for the major deficiencies in the script and pacing.
It's Scott Adkins that will attract viewers to the film, though, and he does everything he can with the material he is given. Baylor is not an ideal fit for Adkins' acting style, unfortunately: as the star has observed himself, he is more suited to antihero roles. In terms of physicality, though, he excels. Adkins handles numerous fights with his usual panache, as well as vehicle handling and various stunts. What the film could have really used is better fight choreography: Shadow of a Tear was superbly handled in this regard by Tim Man, and by comparison Hard Target 2 falls a bit flat. Wonderful Thai action star Jeeja Yanin (of Chocolate fame) is cruelly underused as one of Aldrich's clean-up team - she's not as badly treated as Iko Uwais was in Man of Tai Chi, but it's still a kick in the teeth - so to speak.
Fans of Scott Adkins or DTV action will find enough to satisfy them in Hard Target 2. It's a remarkable achievement for the film to have been shot in just 20 days: it's a reflection of the tight budgets that action films must often keep to right now. With any luck, Adkins will have the chance to reap the benefits of a larger budget soon - with the ability he displays once again here, he's good for it.