Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Timecop (1994)

In 1994, time travel has been invented (don't you remember?). The US government fastly realizes the danger of the new technology, what with possible ripple effects from changing the past large enough to destroy the universe, so they secretly (I think) open their very own time police.

Just before beat cop Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) can join this very special new field of law enforcement, some goons assault and nearly kill him and blow up his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) and their home.

Ten years later, in the far-flung future of 2004 when cars drive automatically and don't have any windows anymore, Walker still hasn't asked himself what the hell the attack was all about. Instead, our hero spends his time watching wide-screen videos (a part of the future the film gets very right) of his wife, working the time beat and having a frightening haircut. When arresting his former partner for temporal financial shenanigans, Walker learns of a horrifying conspiracy: senator McComb (Ron Silver) who just happens to control the senate oversight committee for time-coppery plans to buy himself the presidency with money made via the most obvious time manipulations he can think of.

Knowing that McComb is evil and proving it are two very different things, even though the senator has a tendency to go for explosions and violence where subtlety and secrecy would win him the day. Walker will need all his powers of face-kicking and one-linering to save the US from a president who bought his job (which would probably make the first US president who hasn't thanks to him), and perhaps change his own past for the better in the process.

With Timecop, we're already at the tail end of Jean-Claude Van Damme's short career as something of a mainstream movie star. Many direct-to-video action movies and a pretty substantial late-career renaissance should of course follow. Quality-wise, you really can't blame Timecop as a particularly bad influence on Van Damme's career, for this is a perfectly fine example of US SF action of a type that surely isn't going to wow anybody with its subtextual depth and clever plotting but sure knows how to entertain.

Director Peter Hyams is a bit of a specialist for this sort of thing, the kind of working director that can turn a mediocre script (and he generally isn't going to get a better one) into a fun movie without making a big thing out of it. Which does sound like I'm damning him with faint praise, but really, most directors working from mediocre scripts never end up with anything worth watching at all, certainly not with films that are as pleasant fun for ninety minutes as Timecop is.

When it's not going through the expected action sequences - pleasantly enough sequences that consist of more than just Van Damme doing That Kick and the splits, though there is room for both - Timecop also throws its audience's brains some bones. Sure, Ron Silver's plan is utterly moronic (and he's so proud of it, too, for some reason) and the plot is generally obvious, but there are a few nods towards the subversion of genre tropes to keep one interested - particularly when the film threatens to turn into that most dreaded of things, a buddy cop movie, yet then quickly doesn't. Plus, the final thirty minutes or so make good use of the time travel shtick to build up to an actually exciting climax, that also just happens to include the movie's best action scenes (since this is still an 80s movie despite having been made in the 90s, the finale of course takes place in the rain); unlike some action directors I could mention, Hyams does know about the wonders of escalation and what to do with them.

Van Damme is, of course, pretty much Van Damme here - allowed to be a bit softer around the edges than most US action stars, probably kinda pretty if you like the type, and at this point a rather convincing physical actor. Compared even with the first Universal Soldier movie made only two years earlier, Van Damme's performance has improved enormously. While he's certainly not in the business of competing with young Robert De Niro (he isn't trying, and needn't to, obviously), the stiffness and awkwardness has mostly disappeared from his performance and made room for a self-assuredness that fits an action movie star nicely, leaving his part of Timecop just as satisfying as the rest of the movie.

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