Hard Target: Jean-Claude Van Damme issues a roundhouse kick to class privilege

<span>Photograph: AA Film Archive/Alamy</span>
Photograph: AA Film Archive/Alamy

Landing on streaming services after delays and controversy is The Hunt – an unsubtle, bloody satire in which wealthy Democrats hunt a group of captured “deplorables”. But in this moment of exponentially widening social inequality and polarised politics, the film’s ham-fisted attempts to skewer both Trumpists and performative liberals just plays like directionless trolling.

Instead, you’re better off watching the Jean-Claude Van Damme action film Hard Target – a comparatively nuanced exploration of class, privilege and social welfare in which Van Damme punches a rattlesnake in the face.

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Released in 1993 – with the US in recession and the first Gulf War a recent memory – Hard Target is the first Hollywood film by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo and allegedly the first US studio film directed by an Asian filmmaker. Being a Woo film, it’s packed with brilliant action set pieces and doves flying out of nowhere.

The film opens through the eyes of someone being chased to the sound of Jelly Roll Morton’s piano down a dark New Orleans street. Actually, that’s just the soundtrack: your pursuers are a distinctly jazz-vibes-free Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his goons, whose cash cow involves tricking homeless military veterans into being hunted by rich old white dudes with Bono-level dumb sunglasses.

Lance Henriksen, as Emil Fouchon, and various honchos in Hard Target.
Lance Henriksen, as Emil Fouchon, and various honchos in Hard Target. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library/Alamy

Van Damme’s character, the ex-merchant seaman Chance Boudreaux, sets out to dismantle this egregious example of class privilege by repeatedly kicking it in the head. During his first fight, in a nod to classic Western shootouts, Van Damme brushes aside his coat as if to show off his piece, but simply reveals his leg – which he uses to kick multiple heads.

Aside from some homophobic “you and your boyfriend” lines, Boudreaux is something of a renaissance man: a literal social justice warrior selling his head-kicking services at an affordable $108.50 per day. He doesn’t drive or have a licence – presumably to offset his explosive carbon footprint with actual footprints to the faces of his enemies. He’s a snappy dresser, going all Jeans-Clad Van Damme in pristine double denim, and appears capable of telepathically communicating with Woo’s doves.

Hard Target’s social commentary is more subtle than The Hunt’s, touching on the plight of military veterans failed by collapsing social services and declining empathy, while the impossible-to-win $10k prize, offered to the homeless men for escaping, is a stand-in for illusory upwards social mobility.

No film has featured a haircut as good as Van Damme’s mullet in Hard Target. Photograph: AA Film Archive/Alamy

When Boudreaux’s uncle – a jolly old fellow (Wilford Brimley) who just wants to get lit on moonshine in the bayou – gets his house blown up, we’re shown the precariousness of rural life in the face of encroaching capitalism.

Humans have hunted humans on film since the 1932 adaptation of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, but no film has featured a haircut as good as Van Damme’s mullet in Hard Target – it’s no accident the superlative piece of barbering is the first part of his body we see on screen.

Containing multitudes of emotion and oil, the mullet sweeps back from his forehead, past neatly trimmed sides, to dust his muscular shoulders. The perfect ringlets appear to function as a counterweight, allowing Van Damme (read: his stunt double) to stand hands-free on a moving motorbike’s seat, before flipping over the bonnet of an oncoming truck. The mullet’s potent virility caused my previously non-existent ovaries to flutter into being, like a pair of Woo’s doves.

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Since its often cited (but debated) coining by The Beastie Boys on 1994’s Mullet Head, the hairstyle has been a punching bag for bigoted assumptions about the wearer’s education, politics and economic standing. But in Hard Target this maligned signifier of the so-called lower classes is elevated to a thing of wonder, desire and admiration. Ironically, rich kids are now appropriating mullets, hoping to convince others they don’t also prey on poor people.

Hard Target kicks up rather than punches down. It’s an empowering story about a person with little to his name, putting a stop to the rich people playing god with the lives of people just like him. During the film’s climactic battle, an exasperated Fouchon highlights the gulf of experience between the haves and have-nots; and the disdain of the latter for the monied, callous and greedy.

Fuchon: “What made you want to complicate my life like this?”

Boudreaux: “Poor people get bored too.”