John Woo's original cut of the film ran nearly two hours and focused more on Van Cleef. Jean-Claude Van Damme and his editor locked themselves in an editing room for two days and reedited the film for the producers. Van Damme stated that moviegoers were paying to see a Van Damme movie, not a Lance Henriksen movie.
After the domestic and international box office success of the film, Universal Pictures, production company Alphaville (producers Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel), star Jean-Claude Van Damme and director John Woo briefly considered re-teaming for another action/thriller to be titled "Shadow of Death". However, due to the difficult relationship between Van Damme and Woo, the project never materialized.
Kurt Russell was considered to star, but the lead role ended up going to Jean-Claude Van Damme when Universal Pictures decided that they wanted to be in the "Van Damme business". The studio had successfully released his martial arts pic, Lionheart (1990) in 1991, and his pictures released between that film and "Hard Target" had all been strong performers domestically and internationally.
Many critics called the picture "the most violent film of the summer". One critic said that it was only concerned about one thing: violence. Noted film critic Kevin Thomas, who enjoyed the picture, said the film's violence was no more explicit than the the previous fall's Under Siege (1992).
This movie has many references to John Woo's previous film Hard Boiled (1992) (including half of the title). There is also a reference point from Woo's earlier film Bullet in the Head (1990) at the end of the film in which Van Cleef kicks a burning barrel at Chance and he jumps over it.
Theatrical trailer shows Van Cleef saying "Look at it this way. You gonna get to meet Elvis" while kneeling over dead body of Roper after his men killed him on street. This short dialogue scene is not in any known version of the movie. Due to this and the fact that movie was heavily re-cut many times it's possible that there was more deleted footage than even the famous uncut workprint versions include.
During the final battle, Lance Henriksen's coat accidentally caught fire. He never broke character and continued the scene while he pulled off the coat and threw it away. This remained in the final cut.
Jean-Claude Van Damme had already been a huge fan of John Woo's films and arranged to meet with him in Hong Kong where the two got along despite both Woo and Van Damme's difficulty with their English. On working with Van Damme, Woo stated that he was "sure of [my own] abilities and I know how to make an actor look good on screen, make him look like a hero. I thought I could do the same for Van Damme". Despite early misgivings of working with Van Damme, Woo changed many action scenes in the film to make them more spectacular on finding that Van Damme was up for it. While working with Van Damme, Woo stated that Van Damme had "a pretty big ego, but he's still professional and always tries to do a good job."
Chuck Pfarrer wrote the script originally basing it on The Naked Prey (1965). After the script did not turn out Pfarrer worked on a script influenced by Aliens (1986) that became the basis for his comic Virus. The final attempt was a script based on The Most Dangerous Game.
Lance Henriksen accepted the role of Emil Fouchon stating he was great fan of John Woo, noting that his earlier films "were so creative, so balletic, and had this incredible philosophy in them. The violence was only a container for the philosophy".
Production lasted 74 days. However, the film was put on a tight schedule by Universal that allowed only 65 days of shooting time. This put a lot of pressure on John Woo. He was also pressured by Universal to tone-down the violence and body count that they had seen in his Hong Kong films.
As John Woo had not mastered the English language yet, it took time for the cast and crew to get used to working with him. When Woo could not explain what he wanted with a shot to cinematographer Russell Carpenter, he would resort to simple statements such as "this will be the Sam Peckinpah shot" to get his message across to Carpenter. Lance Henriksen recalled that it was a gradual process that led everyone involved to start seeing the film as a John Woo film rather than a Jean-Claude Van Damme film.
Russell Carpenter found difficulty in filming the huge gunfight scenes. Carpenter specifically noted the Mardi Gras parade warehouse by recollecting that "just the lighting for a space like that, with all those strange shapes and shadows was difficult enough, but John then added the further complication of wanting the scene shot from several angles at once-often with more than one of the cameras moving". Producer James Jacks supported this style of filming finding it the most economical way to shoot these types of action scenes.
In an interview, Lance Henriksen recalled how when he asked director John Woo how to approach his character's motivation at the end of the film, Woo told him to think about what someone would be like who enjoyed taking advantage of the weak and vulnerable. Henriksen said that was the only direction he gave him, and let Henriksen decide how big or small to play the role. Henriksen has said also said that the word "no" never came out of Woo's mouth.