Jack Mason (Ice-T) is a homeless man on the streets of Seattle who suffers a very bad twenty-four hours, starting with when his pet dog runs out into the traffic and is hit by a car, killing it instantly. Mason gets into an altercation with the driver, but it's too late for the pooch, and he gives it a respectful burial on a patch of wasteground with the help of his friend Hank (Jeff Corey) who is always there to give him advice. Later, as they rifle through bins seeking something to eat, Mason finds a pistol, and pockets it to pawn it the next day, while Hank gives him advice on gun safety, but a security guard (Bob Minor) rounds on them, especially when he sees the weapon. The next morning, Hank has even more ill luck...
But while all this is going on, Mason is being watched, and we know why, too: that's because we have witnessed the opening titles which showed a different homeless guy who was being hunted down and killed out in the forests of the American North West. Now, chases are nothing new in thrillers, but then again neither was the old, old story of humans being hunted for sport since it was a short story first adapted into a horror movie back in the nineteen-thirties with The Most Dangerous Game, a cult favourite among vintage chiller buffs. It was such a potent idea that it returned again and again in films and in television, and indeed when Surviving the Game was released, it was within months of Hard Target being made.
Comparing that work to this, and many did back in '94, what this was lacking was a snake getting punched in the face by Jean-Claude Van Damme, but Ice-T was not playing some superhuman he-man, he was a bloke down on his luck who is picked for this sport because he has recently been seen trying to commit suicide in the same method his dog died. Soup kitchen and shelter volunteer Cole (Charles S. Dutton) spots this and saves our hero, giving him a reason to go on by handing contact details of Thomas Burns (Rutger Hauer) who invites Mason to be a hunting guide on his next expedition. Only you're ahead of the movie since we've already noted the titles and that unfortunate chap gunned down while trying to escape.
Will Mason end up the same way? Considering the amusement in this hoary old plot was seeing the tables turned, you would have to think, well, probably not, so once he has been flown out to the wilderness we anticipate all hell breaking loose when the rich hunters try to murder the far poorer victim. You would have acknowledged the strain of social commentary in Eric Bernt's screenplay, nothing remotely subtle, but championing life's losers and attacking those who would trample them underfoot, even exploit them for their own sick pleasure, and while all this was blatantly deployed to have the audience sympathise with Mason from the start, it was at least heartfelt, and Ice-T embodied a certain righteous anger, albeit with a sob story he imparts at a quieter, more reflective moment in the movie.
It was certainly a decent cast who were assembled here, though the real scene stealer was, perhaps predictably, Gary Busey as a psychiatrist (!) who was awarded a monologue about a character-building part of his childhood that was as ridiculous as it was well-delivered, in the inimitable Busey style. Also around were F. Murray Abraham who has taken his son (William McNamara) with him to toughen him up, not that the son is too pleased about being ordered kill someone because it will make a man of him, but misplaced masculine pride was the other major theme, underlined when there was not one female with more than one scene here: actually, there were barely any whatsoever. John C. McGinley was a blustering macho man who eventually sees the light when he is given a chance to relate to the underprivileged, i.e. Mason tells him to stop this nonsense and he thinks, good point. Director Ernest R. Dickerson assembled the action with a workmanlike but muscular style, and it was about as good as you'd expect the umpteenth retelling of this yarn would be, without hitting on anything truly inspired. Music by Stewart Copeland (not his best).