out of ****
Target shifts the viewer’s gears in so many different
directions with so much confidence that we are helpless to do
anything but allow it to lead us by the hand. In some ways, it
is a suspense thriller with plenty of exciting action sequences.
But at its heart, it is a powerful human drama that updates Christ’s
Prodigal Son parable and places it into the world of organized
crime. Because of the masterful way that the movie weaves its
characters through their personal revelations, not to mention
the conviction of the cast and breathtaking locales, I find myself
giving this film my highest recommendation, despite some obvious
faults from the filmmakers.
to the gorgeous backdrop of South Africa, The Target
is the story of crooked lawyer Robert Nile (Dennis Hopper), who
has been asked to testify against the recently arrested South
African crime lord Christo (Simon Najiba). Nile is one of the
richest and most influential men in Cape Town, though his personal
life is a mess. An alcoholic whose business is soaked deep in
corruption, Nile is a widower who suffered from a bitter marriage.
In addition, his estranged daughter Erika (Diane Kruger) stays
an arm’s length from him, openly billing him as the despicable
old cuss that he is whenever he attempts to reason with her.
is prepared to testify against Christo, but even in jail, the
kingpin’s influence reaches far enough for Nile’s
life to be in danger, and the lawyer eventually enlists European
professional hit man Alex Laney (Christopher Lambert) to be his
personal bodyguard, who has a troubled past in Cape Town. As Laney
is introduced into the film, he is mercilessly dispatching some
riffraff somewhere in Europe, though it becomes clear that this
hit man is not without sympathy and charm. Much like Jean Reno
in Luc Besson's Léon, Laney separates his killer-for-hire
profession from his personal life. For the most part, he is a
shy, timid man who would much rather stay uninvolved in people
politics and simply keep to himself, playing his piano in his
dimly lit apartment. Nevertheless, he does his job well, and returning
to Cape Town and getting involved with Robert Nile opens up skeletons
in Laney’s closet that force him out of his private world
and into the lawyer’s personal life. Plot twists abound
that I would not dare to give away, but I will reveal that eventually,
Laney turns from indifference and comes to respect Nile beyond
his paying him well to make sure he is kept alive.
the main actors are in top form and the scenes are directed with
finesse, there has not been much up to this point that separates
The Target from any other standard action movie. We are
given a fairly routine action plot with a cardboard villain and
some characters essentially from stock footage who are given lines
that borderline plagiarism (“You saved my life today. That’s
not something that a man like myself easily forgets.”).
By the time Erika is kidnapped by some of Christo’s men
to set a trap for Niles, I found myself glancing at my watch.
the first act comes to a close, the movie takes an unexpected
turn. Erika is successfully rescued, but Laney is wounded. Nile
stuffs his injured bodyguard and Erika into a stolen car and they
drive off into the unknown South African terrain. Nile drives
them to a tiny native village where he grew up, where he has not
ventured since childhood. Evidently he was raised by the entire
African community that is led by a jolly old fat woman known only
as Momma (Ruth Cele). Here, Laney’s wounds are treated and
Nile begins a psychological journey into his past, in which he
recalls the joy-filled innocence of his youth. Being surrounded
by his old way of life and his childhood friends forces Nile to
wonder where he went wrong in life, and he seeks to reconcile
with his old village, his daughter, and himself. At this point,
The Target doesn’t just pick up, it sky-rockets
into a masterpiece of character study and human drama.
I watched the scenes of Nile in his old village , I came to understand
why the first third of the film created the clichés that
it did: The first act was invented only to be torn down by a smarter
film that followed. Writer Brad Mirman and director Jean-Pierre
Roux have taken a standard action/thriller story and placed a
thinking brain into it. The film introduces a routine scenario
with character situations that bathe in cliché—from
the crime story to the dysfunctional father/daughter relationship,
and asks what if these run-of-the-mill characters were actually
interesting people? What if someone made a movie that placed stock-characters
in a scenario in which they had to consider their lives? What
choices did they make in the first place that turned them into
clichéd characters? When the movie returns Nile to his
childhood home and shifts into a character study, we suddenly
find ourselves caught off guard and sympathizing with this man.
As Niles finds his innocence restored, daughter Erika and hit
man Laney make changes of their own that goes against every cliché
that was established in the first act.
the film makes such a dramatic, well-written change, we forgive
the film’s beginning. We have to, because we realize that
these scenes were necessary to prove the movie’s point:
that even stock-characters in standard action movies can be interesting
with the right writer and director behind the project. When Christo
resurfaces in the film’s third act and the final showdown
takes place, we continue to forgive the clichés, because
we already understand that these scenes have to play out in order
to show that while the film’s basic premise has remained
the same, the protagonists have all gone through dramatic changes
so that they are now thinking outside of the routine world that
they live in. Never mind that Christo is never anything beyond
a lifeless, paper-thin villain. This is not a movie about him,
and he needs no meat for his role. He exists merely to move Nile’s
story along, and he succeeds.
film could only work as well as it does with strong actors in
the leads. Dennis Hopper, Christopher Lambert, and Diana Kruger
prove to be up to the task. As Nile’s daughter Erika, Diana
Kruger begins the film loud and bitter towards her father, but
as the movie progresses and he begins to change, she becomes strong,
silent, and supportive. In the last act, she isn’t given
much to do, but she doesn’t have to do much for her character’s
strength to shine. That she even sticks around and supporting
Niles after they arrive in his hometown shows enough.
Alex Laney, Christopher Lambert brings just the right note into
his performance. After so many films playing ancient warriors
and brooding cops, it is refreshing to see Lambert in a role that
doesn't play against his quiet coolness and meek spirit. A private
man haunted by his painful past, Alex Laney remains quiet and
attentive throughout, and eventually progresses from a calculative
killer to a more easy-going, sympathetic character. Through the
course of the film, Laney’s attitude clearly changes from
a “this is only a job” mentality to a deep respect
for Nile, and Lambert and Hopper work well together to successfully
establish this complicated relationship. Though I would never
go so far as to say that they build a friendship, Nile’s
kindness to the hit man moves Laney enough to remain with the
lawyer and to even volunteer to face Christo when everyone else
in the town has fled. The subtle relationship between Nile and
Laney is crucial to the film's final revelation, which works as
a brilliant anti-climax that ends The Target on a perfect
note eclipsing all of the film’s themes. Through all of
these shifts, Christopher Lambert never looses grasp of his character;
his performance is quiet, thoughtful, and captivating.
Target is Dennis Hopper's movie in the end, and he dazzles
us with a performance that hits all of the right keys. Nile's
progression from crooked-lawyer-stock-character to human being
is a careful one, and Hopper plays Nile as if the lawyer is just
as surprised with the direction the movie takes as we are. In
one particularly effective scene early in the second act, he is
warmly welcomed back to his hometown by some old chums (played
by the great South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo,
in cameos) who sing to him and invite him to join in their nightly-dance
in the streets. At first, Niles hesitates, but as his friends
dance around him and laugh, he eventually succumbs and begins
to let loose. As he does, his character loses his hardness and
begins his transformation into a human being. Later, Hopper sparkles
with emotion as he finds an old pouch of trinkets that an old
man had given Nile as a child, which he had buried as hidden treasure.
He breaks down emotionally as he recalls his lost innocence. We
are never given an explanation of why or how Nile fell from grace,
and we do not need one. How he fell from innocence is irrelevant
to the fact that he fell, and his journey home has made him rediscover
what he's lost. Never mind that these old relics offer no revelation
about his past or give insight to why he left this delightful
little town to pursue lofty vanities. They are simply old memories
that remind him of who he used to be, and that's all they need
to be for purposes of developing his character. Robert Nile is
easily Hopper's best performance in years, and there is not a
single scene in which the actor doesn't understand his character.
special mention should also be given to the cinematographer Larry
Smith. I have never seen South Africa look so surreal and beautiful
cinematically. Besides giving us shots that will make any landscape
painter want to take out his canvas, Smith successfully captures
the change in the narrative as it comes. In the first act, as
the film begins deep in corruption, we are shown mostly shady
offices and hot, depressing nights. As the film moves to Robert
Nile’s hometown, Smith gives us caves that shine with the
sun’s light and open prairies that are glorious to look
at, symbolizing Nile’s emergence from his gloom. In addition,
Smith effectively uses the black Africans so that they are simply
not extras in the background but rather real, breathing human
beings whose refreshing presence is pivotal for Nile’s return
Target doesn’t get everything right. There are some
problems, mainly with the editing. In the film’s first act,
we are given so many interchanging scenes between Alex Laney and
Robert Nile that it is difficult to tell who the film is about.
This film was released in some countries as The Piano Player.
I am happy that the title was eventually changed, as Laney is
the piano player and the film is about Christo's target Nile.
Still, for the first twenty minutes it is nearly impossible to
decipher the main character from the supporting role. It would
have helped if they trimmed down some of Lambert’s scenes,
particularly the conversation in the strip bar where Laney has
a pointless meeting with an informant. I fail to see what the
relevance of this segment is, except to show gratuitous nudity
that is both unneeded and inappropriate.
of the splicing together of scenes also could have used some work.
It is difficult to determine some of the scenes that are flashbacks,
as we are given no transitions that indicate a change in time.
There is also a particular flashback into Nile’s childhood
that concerns an older man that didn't quite piece into the plotline.
In addition, the director has an odd tendency in action sequences
to crosscut the denouement of the scene with the buildup, and
play them as if they are happening at the same time. The editing
in these scenes gets quickly confusing.
no mistake—The Target is not a perfect film; however
the flaws simply cancel out when held up to what’s right
with the picture. If director Jean-Pierre Roux and writer Brad
Mirman occasionally lose their narrative footing, the power of
the premise and the strength of the characters still manage to
turn The Target into an enchanting cinematic experience.
They have created a character in Robert Nile who has to make decisions
about his life's journey that are poignant and beautiful, in a
movie that draws us into his brain to experience his flawed humanity.
When sitting down to write this review, I was first planning to
give The Target a three or three-and-a-half star rating.
However, as I assess the movie now, perhaps the fact that this
film can so successfully overcome its own faults is a tribute
to its ingenuity. Whether the film makers intended it or not,
the flaws manage to prove the film's message. Indeed, The
Target is a grand character study and a rare gem, and it
has rightfully earned the title of one of the year's best films.
AKA: The Piano Player
Robert Nile: Dennis Hopper
Alex Laney: Christopher Lambert
Erika Niles: Diane Kruger
Farrell: James Faulkner
Momma: Ruth Cele
Artisan Entertainment presents
a Splendid Pictures release of a film directed by Jean-Pierre
Roux. Written by Brad Mirman. 94 minutes. Rated R for violence,
brief sexuality/nudity, language, and drug abuse. Released on
DVD July 22, 2003.