Quentin Tarantino and I have something in common: We're both movie nuts who once worked behind the counter in video stores.
I can't speak for Tarantino, but most of my customers were couples (or one member of a couple renting something that both would see). And in nearly every case the man had final veto power over the movie-selection process. I'm no anthropologist, but if I had to guess, I'd bet the explanation for this phenomenon is the same one that accounts for the age-old enigma of male dominance of the remote-control clicker. It was bizarre. A woman would want to rent, say, Steel Magnolias. She'd be vocal about it, tell her companion about all the friends of hers who had seen it and liked it, mention Julia Roberts. The guy would usually smile or nod, never really flat out saying no, but still continue to check out the rest of the new releases. Eventually they'd end up leaving with Raw Deal (in more ways than one). This is why No Retreat, No Surrender 2 was a better renter than Rambling Rose, and why video-store owners like Wings Hauser more than Shirley MacLaine or Olympia Dukakis. I call it the Rutger Hauer Syndrome, in honor of the Dutch leading man whose good work (Blade Runner, The Hitcher) has been eclipsed by his contributions to the macho action-schlock genre (Wanted Dead or Alive, Blind Fury, and The Blood of Heroes).
But along about 1990 a strange thing happened. Women who once objected vociferously when their mates reached for Marked for Murder or Reason to Die said nothing when the dude came to the counter with Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Cyborg, or Death Warrant. The reason? The emergence of a sexy Belgian martial artist named Jean-Claude Van Damme.
From 1990 through 1992 I must have overheard a hundred arguments among the male customers in my video store about who would kick who's ass in a real-life fight A Schwarzenegger, Seagal, or Van Damme. Among the wives and girlfriends, however, there was consensus: Jean-Claude was the sleekest, limberest, cutest macho man of them all. His arrival on the scene was a boon for video stores, as well as for long-suffering females who had endured all the Bruce Lee knockoffs and Lou Ferrigno vehicles (The Cage and Liberty and Bash being two of my personal all-time so-bad-you-have-to-laugh favorites). Van Damme was a sensation -- a handsome, Anglo-looking chop-sockey hero with incredible physical skills. The fact that he almost could act was icing on the beefcake.
With the release of Double Impact in 1991, Van Damme began to pull Arnoldian numbers on video rentals, and Hollywood began trying to figure a way to break him out of the martial-arts genre and into mainstream action. He had all the, um, tools.
Last year's Hard Target paired Van Damme with my homeboy Quentin's main man, Hong Kong action master John Woo. Unfortunately, working in Tinseltown must have made the usually hard-boiled director woozy; Target missed its mark. But the film did offer a glimpse of the "new" Van Damme: tender but tough, as vulnerable a lover as he is formidable a foe. In a nutshell, less cocky and more likable.
Now comes Timecop, a movie that pits honest cop Van Damme against evil politician Ron Silver. Here's the pitch: It's 1994. A U.S. scientist invents a time machine. The government decides to hide the discovery, so that none of our enemies can use the technology to alter history against us. Silver plays power-hungry Sen. Aaron McComb, who volunteers to head the top-secret Congressional committee overseeing the machine's use and development. Van Damme is Max Walker, an agent for the newly formed Time Enforcement Commission, whose mandate is to prevent unauthorized abuses of the equipment. McComb wants to run for president but he needs megabucks to do so. As commission director Matuzak puts it, "Going back in time is a pretty easy way to make money." Guess how McComb decides to raise funds.
Like any good action flick, this one starts with a bang, has a gratuitous sex scene less than twenty minutes into the proceedings, and features a butt-kicking male protagonist whose loving wife (action heroes' wives are always perfect and doomed) gets killed off by the bad guy's minions, thus guaranteeing the good guy will be haunted by his memory of her until he finally breaks the rules to get revenge. And in this case there's a kicker (no pun intended): Walker is tempted to use his job to go back and prevent his wife's death.
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As time-travel movies go, this one's story is more in line with the low budget likes of Timerider, Time Runner, Timestalkers, Time Trackers, and Time Travelers than with more inventive fare such as Time Bandits or Time After Time. (With the exception of the original 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, the best time-travel movies -- the Back to the Future series, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure -- don't use the word time in their titles.) The usual gaping plot holes are apparent here; you can't expect to enjoy movies like this if you're going to analyze the stories too closely. And some of the special effects are surprisingly cheesy (when the action fast-forwards to the year 2004, Van Damme scoots about the landscape in a vehicle that would have made a clever sight gag in Woody Allen's Sleeper, and he's always the only person on the road, thereby circumventing the need to construct more ludicrous futuristic vehicles).
For all of those reasons it is unlikely that Timecop will pump up Van Damme enough to match Arnold's box-office stature. But it's his most entertaining movie to date, a quantum leap forward from the Bloodsports and Universal Soldiers. He got plenty of help: Silver makes a credible villain, bringing menace and intelligence to a part that easily could have degenerated into cartoon caricature. And Bruce McGill's Matuzak keeps things light with some inspired comic relief ("As you can see, Senator, we've spared every expense. No comfort. No convenience," he reassures a touring bigwig about to vote on Time Enforcement Commission funding). McGill's character is to this film what Tom Arnold's was to True Lies.
Yes, the filmmakers insist on showing us over and over how Van Damme can dispatch heavies with bare feet and fists. Yes, he resorts to his signature splits twice. And yes, he liberally sprinkles his accent over syllables of dialogue ("Ah'll tale you diss," he says to his boss when he discovers McComb's abuse of the technology, "eef uh cannot go beck to sev her, diss scumbag iss nut going beck tuh still"). But Van Damme never has been more engaging. Unlike Hard Target and Nowhere to Run, Timecop succeeds in showcasing his soft side. There's more to the former kickboxing champion than the usual hop, skip, and thump.
Don't get me wrong. Van Damme hasn't turned the corner into genuine acting yet. But he's getting closer. One or two more rides like Timecop and Van Damme may indeed leave his past behind.