A deadly hit to erase the past
Alex Laney is a professional hit man, hired to solve difficult "problems" for exclusive clients. When infamous South African drug lord Christo is captured, there is only one man capable of putting him in jail forever: his shifty, money-laundering lawyer Robert Nile. Forces favorable to Nile hire Laney to protect the crocked counselor and his adult daughter from the powerful kingpin. But after an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt and a near deadly fire fight Laney is left wounded. Nile decides to flee Cape Town and seek refuge in an old mining village where he grew up, deep in the heart of the African wilderness. There they are treated graciously and "Big Momma," Nile's adoptive parent, nurses Laney back to health. During their stay in the town, the angst-ridden attorney thinks back on his life, the abandonment he felt and how astray his life has been lead. Hiding in this barren but beautiful oasis, he feels safe and secure. The only problem is, without his presence and testimony back in the city, Christo is allowed to go free, and like a seething wild beast in search of a specific prey, the insidious dope dealer makes a direct, deranged path straight for his former associate's youthful hideaway. In order to defeat this desperate madman, Laney and Nile must work together. These heretofore unrelated entities may have an unusual bond, forged long ago, that neither wants to face. Not as long as Nile is The Target.
There are so many good things about The Target, effective moments and profound performance/directorial choices, that when the story starts to meander about two-thirds of the way through, it has built up enough good will to see you through to the less-than-successful ending. Basically a tale of two movies, one being a somewhat intense action crime story, the other an atmospheric trip through the past, The Target (its original title was The Piano Player) somehow manages to meld the two together to make an imminently watchable, yet almost immediately forgettable, cinematic diversion. This is high quality, yet still grade B made-for-television style criminal intrigue. It wallows in mundane setups and some too-convenient plot devices, but it does so in a way that is incredibly beautiful and occasionally suspenseful. There are portions of this film that will take your breath away. There are several sweeping SteadiCam shots of the South African countryside that speak volumes in their primal beauty. The evocative landscape (which frankly has never before been captured in such grand splendor) and the enigmatic nature of the three principles make for a fascinating, fresh combination. But part of the problem is that the stale script ideas just can't begin to compete with the scenery or the actors. Christopher Lambert does a splendid job of evoking the lost soul battle scarred professional killer lost in his painful, solemn past. Simon Najiba is also fascinating as the silent, sinister Christo. Seen mostly in the shadows and darkness of his jail cell, he becomes an effective emissary of evil once released and wandering the deserted streets of the mining town where our characters have sought sanctuary.
But the movie really belongs to Dennis Hopper, in both a good and a bad way. Tapping into an internal pain and method comfort zone to bring Nile to rich, detailed life, his performance is simultaneously moving and ridiculous, subtle and painfully obvious. When reminiscing about his childhood with the black African "Big Momma," he is all uncontrollable emotion. But when then asked to share a dance from his youth with the town folk, Hopper falls apart as an actor. He personally looks uncomfortable, as if secretly saying to himself "this old white man has no business doing this native step." Again, he makes weighty moral judgments about saving his life and paying for his crimes, and yet he seems more alive picking up prostitutes and drinking until he pukes. All these competing normal and oddball claims clash and constantly turn his character inside out until we are not sure whether to root for his death or redemption. This exemplifies The Target's main problem. We really have no one to consistently sympathize with or care about. Lambert is a killer after all, so even when moody and meditative it's hard to remove oneself from his murderous lifestyle. Hopper's Nile seems like the walking wounded until he rediscovers his big shot legal eagle jerk personality and irks the empathy right out of you. And the daughter is a non-entity, a seemingly forgotten subplot point (perhaps to romance Lambert?) left to dangle without much going for or knowing of her. All we really have to keep us interested is the "will he or won't he die" dilemma facing both Nile and Christo. Without that linear lure, most members of the audience would simply lose interest in all the introspection.
But thanks to director Jean-Pierre Roux, The Target is not an obvious failure. He does have problems with sustaining tone, but overall, he gives this film a visual flair, an obscure sense of style (who would have thought South Africa to be so evocative?) and a moody minimalism that differentiates it from hundreds of other derivative pseudo thrillers. Unfortunately, Artisan decides to screw with The Target's framing and compositions, offering the film in a flawed full frame presentation. While it is not pan and scan, the open matte job destroys several of Roux's more impressive artistic ideas. The Dolby Digital (in either 5.1 or 2.0) serves the director well. It aids tremendously in evoking atmosphere, especially in the final confrontation between Laney, Nile and Christo. But then Artisan's irritating attitude towards DVD release rears its ugly head again, this time by offering no other bonus material aside from a trailer. Unknown movies by unknown filmmakers require something more than a marketing item to give potentially interested renters/buyers insight into such an unfamiliar title. Unless you are a fan of Lambert or Hopper, Artisan makes sure there is nothing else here to attract your attention. Which is really too bad, since The Target is a decent, distinctive thriller hobbled by some writing and acting missteps. While far from perfect, it is also light years away from the USA Network nausea its existence suggests. This is one off-title B picture worth checking out.
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