Tom Jolliffe looks back at Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Tsui Hark double bill of Double Team and Knock Off…
Jean-Claude Van Damme was riding high in the mid 90s. He was coming off the back of a string of his biggest hits. He had an eye for talent too, becoming a key figure in bringing John Woo to Hollywood with Hard Target. He later delved back to Hong Kong for another esteemed master of the action genre when he brought Ringo Lam over for the underrated classic Maximum Risk.
Hard Target proved a big success, during a period that also saw Timecop and Universal Soldier propel Van Damme alongside Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Street Fighter came, and whilst it was financially successful, it was critically derided.
Maximum Risk would begin a run of broader choices by Van Damme which coincided with a period of instability in his personal life. Gambles like a video game adaptation and a continued eye on transitioning Hong Kong action directors over to America were perhaps an antithesis to what might have been.
After Timecop, Van Damme was offered a three picture deal, but pushed for the kind of money Jim Carrey was getting. It resulted in a door slamming shut. Perhaps that safer studio selection of carefully chosen (and formulaic) films might have proved more consistent at the box office.
When it came to the third Hong Kong legend to be brought over by Van Damme, the Tsui Hark years might well represent the biggest shift in JCVD’s career. The films needed to work. Success was key. For fans, these films divide opinion, but one consistent feeling is certain: they’re a fucking mess.
Still, in what would be a double that effectively saw Van Damme’s big screen appeal beaten almost to its death (the final nail hammered home by 1999’s, Universal Soldier: The Return), there are interesting moments housed within both Double Team and Knock Off. Time to revisit…
So, Tsui Hark followed in the footsteps of John Woo and Ringo Lam. If Woo was the most poetic, and Lam the most gritty, then Hark was the wildest of these three greats. Prone to extravagant and unrestrained camera movements and an approach to editing that almost approached avante garde, Hark was always going to be interesting.
Van Damme is Quinn, a retired CIA agent who is about to be a father. He’s left his life behind but there’s a lingering regret and a hearty dose of unfinished business because his arch nemesis, Stavros was never apprehended and has now resurfaced. Quinn returns in an op to take Stavros down once and for all, but everything goes wrong.
Stavros, having a very public meeting with his son, is ready for anything and his goons exchange fire with Quinn’s CIA hit squad. In the process, Stavros’ son is killed and he escapes. Stavros takes revenge later, leaving Quinn for dead and then setting sights on endearing himself to Quinn’s pregnant wife (who is told Quinn is dead) with an eye on raising the late Quinn’s child.
Meanwhile Quinn is actually alive, and taken to an inescapable island run by a private group of ex agency spooks who now oversee intelligence and operations across the globe. Quinn has no choice and can only watch Stavros from afar, until he escapes the island intent on bringing down Stavros for good.
Van Damme is far from his best here seeming a little vacant. He’s not into it, in the same he was when he was young and hungry, rising up through the ranks. Conversely, he hadn’t yet found a new grit and maturity that would become more consistent during his straight to video days, even if Ringo Lam had begun unearthing that side of Van Damme in Maximum Risk. There’s a sense he was resting on his laurels, but also a sense that off set antics and partying were taking their toll on his work on screen.
By contrast, Mickey Rourke, despite being well into a career slump, with his own history of troublesome set behaviour and personal problems, is very much giving his all to the role. Rourke is almost better than he really needed to be for this kind of misfiring high concept buddy cop, that suffered from an array of 90’s action cardinal sins (from soundtrack, to editing and unnecessarily convoluted plotting) and not least in stunt casting a high profile celeb with no acting background (or apparently ability).
Said superstar stunt casting here, comes in the form of Dennis Rodman. His non-binary and androgynous performance as Yaz is, if only by accident, somewhat trailblazing, but Rodman is awkward as essentially the funny man to Van Damme’s straight man. In time, the films cheesier elements, and persistent failed landings have given it some cult appeal. Flawed 90’s B movies certainly have an appeal. The fact most of the one liners could in principal work, if they weren’t so poorly delivered and timed gives the whole thing an almost endearing awkwardness. It’s a bit like watching a toddler clumsily try and copy a triple jumper.
Hark is allowed to let loose up to a point, but even so, by this point in his career, his best Hong Kong work was behind him and the creative verve wasn’t quite there. Still, there’s enough of a Hark-lite energy that gives the film some zip, even if the constant need to film around Van Damme’s doubles, occasionally makes the visuals incoherent. Again though, the film is almost as enjoyable for what isn’t working than for what is, whilst it also feels oddly trapped between two different films.
On the one hand it’s based on the spec script The Colony by Don Jakoby (that sold for around $1-1.5 million) which as a whole sounded more interesting than what Double Team turned out to be (the ‘colony’ aspect represents about 20 minutes in the film). On the other, it’s a standard cat and mouse revenge film set largely in Rome (and other attractive European cities like Nice). The strange middle third jump of what could have been a more interesting movie breaks up the rhythm.
All in all though, thanks to Hark’s third gear flair and some Sammo Hung action design, Double Team has enough to remain an interesting mid-90’s curio.
Knock Off represents one of Van Damme’s rare forays into gonzo cinema. This American movie shot on location in Hong Kong, which seems to have allowed Hark and his action director (and Hong Kong action legend) Sammo Hung even more freedom to go wild. Not only this, but we have Van Damme starring as a low rent fashion designer and knock off clothing merchant who is always looking to scam a buck or two.
He and his cohort, played by Rob Schneider, are a bickering double act who enter rickshaw races when they’re not making designer fakes or running afoul of Hong Kong gangsters. They unwittingly take possession of items which have nuclear weapon chips housed in goods and are now in the midst of terrorist plots and rogue agents on the take. It’s a change of character for Van Damme and a chance to play a more humorous character, but there’s an added layer here…
Van Damme was reputedly at his most prolific as far as partying and substance abuse. Like Double Team there’s a lot of doubling and a sense he’s not in quite the physical pomp he’d been before (and has been since). A major difference though, is that whilst Van Damme could conceivably have been under the influence in parts of this film, it had more of a positive effect on a performance where he’s not afraid to go large. He appears to be playing up a little and having some fun, and whilst he’s definitely not honed here, there’s an energy to Van Damme and an (yes, I’m gonna say it) enjoyable chemistry with Rob Schneider.
The films big drawer though, is the energy that comes from Hark and placing the film in Hong Kong. It’s very stylish and Hark gets even more creative than he does in Double Team. There’s a sense he’s unfettered in comparison to shooting in Europe, whereas this Hong Kong shoot with plenty of local crew has allowed him more leeway to create. It’s occasionally too much, from wild camera movement and askew angles, to some extreme colour choices, but one thing the film is never is flat and uninspired.
Knock Off is a narrative mess and whilst it’s got the gravitas of Paul Sorvino, the film doesn’t have anyone as sincerely into it as Mickey Rourke was in Double Team. Still, there’s a nice variety of outlandish and enjoyable set pieces (with some great stunts) full of Hong Kong action flavour, and being an intentional comedy offers a reasonable amount of laughs from Steven E. de Souza’s script. It might be a film with parts greater than its whole, but it represents the second part of an interesting, perhaps over cranked double bill.
What are your thoughts on Knock Off and Double Team? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth.com…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/