EXPECTATIONS: A laughably unmitigated disaster that could end JCVD’s career.
REVIEW: Man, where do I start off with this movie? First off, I am a huge Van Damme fan. From the humble beginnings of Breakin’ to his awesome leading role in Bloodsport to his biggest box-office hit, Timecop, his big legs (and karate) showed he could do the splits, no problem. (Hope someone gets that reference). But after Timecop, his films started to dwindle from flop after flop to the point he went to the straight-to-video hell (which it was back then, not as reviled as it is now). But there was one film that always fascinated me of how much it stood out in his entire filmography due to its surrealism, energy and style. Plus, it’s also hilariously bad, but I swear, some of its supposedly bad moments had to be intentional. That film is Knock Off, by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark. Is it unfairly reviled? Pfft, hell no. But if you see it as a knock off of a Hong Kong film aping a Hollywood film, then it can be seen as downright hilarious, if unintentional, entertainment.
Set in 1997 Hong Kong before the Handover, Marcus Ray (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Tommy Hendricks (Rob Schneider) are business partners of the Hong Kong division of V-Six Jeans. Marcus used to be the number one guy in selling knock offs in Hong Kong and Tommy is actually a CIA agent set on bringing down arms dealers. The two are later embroiled and mixed up in a ongoing war between the Chinese, the Russians and the Americans involving global terrorism that can be set off using a new weapon of mass destruction the size of a watch battery, which can be concealed in household products, even children’s toys.
Yes, the story sounds hilariously ridiculous. Rob Schneider as a CIA agent? Jean-Claude Van Damme as a knock-off artist? How can you take this film seriously? Thankfully, director Tsui Hark doesn’t and he compensates for the crummy and convoluted story A LOT with energy, surrealism and style. The pacing is incredibly fast, getting into the action almost immediately. Even the dialogue scenes are imbued with weird angles and shots (dutch, POV, extreme close ups, jump cuts), that it makes the film seem like a dream. And the action scenes are set up in such a unfamiliar manner, it is refreshing and thrilling to watch. Like a fight scene in a parking lot. It could have been easily a generic one-against-many fight scene, but Tsui makes Van Damme seem more like a horror villain chasing its victims than an action hero defeating his enemies. The blurs, the under-cranking, the music, the camera angles are just so unorthodox, it’s a thrill to watch. He’s also aware that he’s making a “knock off” film, so he subverts action cliches like the CIA agent is the comic relief whilst the knock-off artist is the action star and how there are no damsels-in-distress and many more.
Now you’re probably wondering from reading the above is that I’m legitimately praising the film. So where’s the bad? First of all, there’s Van Damme’s performance. It’s a well-known fact that during the 90’s, Van Damme was going through a drug phase, mainly cocaine and in 1998, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Does this come through in his performance? You bet it does. From the first scene his character appears, I was laughing my ass off. Singing a very famous Hong Kong song, driving a car, being so animated and carefree, I knew that Van Damme was not going to give a typical heroic performance. His portrayal of Marcus Ray suits the surrealistic direction of Tsui Hark that they compliment each other really well, particularly in terms of the action scenes. But his performance can be so embarrassing at times, with the lines of dialogue he spouts out with glee like “We are locked to win, my buddy!” or “I like to keep my reputation intact. I always like to make a quality piece of crap!” that never fails to make me laugh, considering the latter line, Van Damme’s reputation is still intact.
The supporting cast are also hysterically awful. Rob Schneider is Rob Schneider, Lela Rochon is like a pornstar trying to play a Bond girl (and it’s as bad as it sounds) and Paul Sorvino is slumming it big time. But funnily enough, their performances are not entirely their fault. First of all, this is definitely a Hong Kong film, despite the predominantly American cast and crew. So, for some weird reason, 95% of the dialogue in the film is dubbed via ADR. In the early Hong Kong films through the 90’s, films were predominantly dubbed, not shot in sync-sound. So in the film Knock Off, Tsui Hark decided to replicate that feel and again, it makes the performances hilariously off-kilter, particularly the Hong Kong actors. Usually, in Hong Kong films, it’s the foreign actors (or gweilos) that come off as hilariously bad in their films. But in Knock Off, Tsui Hark reverses that and makes the Hong Kong actors seem like they had head injuries with horrific dubbing, especially the performance from Wyman Wong as Eddie. His last scene made me spit my drink in hysterics.
Speaking of hysterics, there are many fantastically hilarious or strange moments that I just have to bring up. One action scene is a rickshaw race. And it is in this race, there’s a POV shot from a knock-off shoe Van Damme is wearing that happens to break up during the race. I have no idea why, but again it adds to the surrealism. Another shot during the race is when a car runs over a miniature rickshaw. I get why it is there, but again, it’s just so strange. At one point, Rob Schneider whips Van Damme’s ass with an eel to make him go faster. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. But wait, there’s more! One person hysterically (and it’s meant to be tragic) dies via missile. Ever wonder what it’s like to see a scared fat guy run in slow motion? It’s as funny as it sounds. There’s even a POV shot off a person’s neck being cut by a knife. Like, wow! They really thought of everything. There’s a laughable villain death in the climax that makes it look like he’s having an orgasm before he dies in an explosion. There’s also a villain who uses his lenses from his glasses (knock-off?) as a weapon!
I don’t want to reveal anymore, but if you are an adventurous person who wants to watch a different type of action film or just want to laugh at hilariously bad or weird shit going on, Knock Off is definitely not a Wrong Bet. Get that reference? Okay, it’s not funny, but maybe this will convince you…
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rob Schneider, Lela Rochon, Paul Sorvino, Carmen Lee, Wyman Wong, Glen Chin, Michael Fitzgerald Wong, Moses Chan
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenwriters: Steven E. De Souza