Action sci-fi movies were all the rage back in the early 90s. To be a truly global action star, you needed one under your belt. A big one. Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent Phillip K. Dick adaptation Total Recall got the decade off to a bang with its mesmerising brand of high-concept dystopia and in-your-face violence, but it was James Cameron’s monumental Terminator 2: Judgement Day, then the most expensive film ever produced, that led to something of a sub-genre boom, one that stretched from blockbuster spectaculars to the B-movie doldrums. Schwarzenegger’s biggest commercial rival, Sylvester Stallone, gave us Demolition Man, which in many ways felt like a direct response to Arnie’s landscape-shifting commercial juggernaut, sci-fi helping the Austrian-born star to finally usurp his American counterpart at the box office. Arnie and Sly were on an entirely different planet to everyone else commercially, but there were plenty of stars who would guarantee butts in seats, and in 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme was near the top of that list.
At that point in his career, and with John Woo’s hyper-stylish Hard Target already under his belt, Van Damme was hot shit in Hollywood. He wasn’t Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but he was as close as he’d ever get, and he was a million miles away from the bargain-basement days of No Retreat No Surrender and Cyborg. In fact, Van Damme’s stock had been quietly growing under the noses of the industry’s action super heavyweights during the late-1980s, at least on non-American shores, the success of his highest-grossing movies largely attributed to his popularity in Europe. Like many martial artists looking to make the jump to silver screen heroics, the actor made his name in the B-movie realms of cult production company The Cannon Group, 1988‘s Bloodsport and 1989‘s Kickboxer each making $50,000,000 internationally from budgets in the region of $2,000,000, and it would only get better for the Belgian-born star as we moved into the 90s.
Universal Soldier ($95,000,000), and Nowhere to Run ($52,189,039) proved that Van Damme was no one-hit wonder. When he finally broke the $100,000,000 mark with Timecop and longtime screenwriter-come-director Steven E. de Souza came calling with the chance of headlining blockbuster video game adaptation Street Fighter: The Movie, he became the third action star on the tips of everybody’s tongue. Following Street Fighter: The Movie, the actor’s stock as a truly mainstream draw plummeted. He was still a valuable asset for a few years, levelling off at around $50,000,000 per movie. A couple of late-90s howlers reduced him to a plethora of direct-to-video outings by the time he reached the noughties, but the guy had one hell of a run.
Timecop, which remains Van Damme’s highest-grossing movie as a lead actor (Street Fighter managed an equally impressive $99,400,000), is also one of his better movies in terms of technical nous and production values. It doesn’t compare to the likes of Total Recall, Terminator 2 or Demolition Man, all of which had vastly superior budgets, but in terms of serious filmmaking it’s something of a leap forward. For an action star who had mainly excelled in trash cinema, this came with its own set of problems, namely a story and characters that lacked punch. The movie may benefit from a larger budget than Van Damme fans were used to, but in terms of characterisation and plot it’s still B-movie fare masquerading as blockbuster spectacular.
Produced by Evil Dead duo Sam Raimi and Robert Tappert and based on the Dark Horse comic book series of the same name, Timecop is truly high-concept stuff, the kind you wouldn’t normally associate with an actor of Van Damme’s calibre. At times, it almost seems too cerebral for the notoriously one-note star. The film is beautifully shot, director Peter Hyams, who was already responsible for a string of underrated sci-fi movies including the Oscar-nominated, Sean Connery-led Outland, more than showing his pedigree. A rain-swept opening stand-off is absolutely lush, juxtaposing modern weaponry with an American Civil War backdrop, but these moments prove few and far between, and Hyams is lacking in the only department that truly counts: his handling of the film’s fight sequences.
We all know Van Damme can kick some serious ass. At his best, he’s an absolute joy to watch. You genuinely believe he could waste everyone onscreen when indulging in the kind of stiff martial artistry that would see him sued for recklessness at one stage in his career. According to Stallone, Steven Seagal once chickened out of a fight with the former full-contact karate champion. “I remember once, at my home in Miami, I believe it was in ’96 or ’97,” the actor would recall. “Van Damme was there with Seagal, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Shaquille O’Neal, Don Johnson and Madonna… it was a heck of a party. Van Damme was tired of Seagal saying he could kick his ass and went right up to him and offered him the chance to step outside so he could wipe the floor with him, or should I say wipe the backyard with him. Seagal made some excuse and left. His destination was some Ocean Drive nightclub in Miami. Van Damme, who was completely berserk, tracked him down and again offered him a fight, and again Seagal pulled a Houdini. Who would win? I have to say I believe Van Damme was just too strong and Seagal wanted no part of it.”
It’s strange that Timecop fails to accentuate Van Damme’s greatest asset, even if the idea was to portray him as a higher calibre star. The frenetic editing doesn’t do him any favours. The fight scenes are often too quick and claustrophobic to truly engage with. Either that or it’s too dark to see anything, and usually both. The movie’s climactic scene, the one that fans pay to see, is so shrouded in darkness you can barely tell what’s happening, even with the aid of a lovely crisp Blu-ray transfer, so I dread to think what it looked like on a muggy VHS tape. It’s such a shame. Van Damme is all about his fighting skills and catlike athleticism. You only have to look at what John Woo did for him a year earlier to see that. A good action director is the most important element of a successful action film beyond its star attraction, and that goes double for a Van Damme movie. The choreography can be bang-on but if it’s poorly captured it becomes lost on the audience. Hyams is a fine director, but his energies are mostly spent elsewhere.
Timecop also lacks a sci-fi soundtrack to truly immerse yourself in. Soundtracks are so important to these movies. Think The Terminator‘s dead-eyed industrial classic or Harold Faltermeyer’s often harsh, often contemplative, but always fiercely dystopian synth-rock score for Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man. Timecop goes for a more traditional action-adventure sound that makes you forget you’re watching a concept-heavy science fiction vehicle at times, but there’s a very particular reason for this. Timecop is the kind of time travel movie in which our characters, in this case Van Damme’s Walker and the Time Enforcement Police, travel back to the future, spending most of their time in the past, which means there’s no room for a Vangelis epic of Blade Runner proportions. Narratively speaking, there’s a little of the Robert Zemeckis at play, though rather than attempting to make his future parents fall in love to maintain his very existence, Van Damme’s mission is to stop bad guys from tampering with the past, thereby preventing a cataclysmic future.
Other than that, all the Van Damme trademarks are there: the terrible accent and poorly delivered puns, the constant flexing, the ludicrous displays of athleticism and smug instances of heroics (how many martial artists use the splits as one of their most prominent manoeuvres?). If you’re a fan of the star you’ll lap it up. When we first meet Walker at the mall with his wife Melissa (Mia Sara), he casually excuses himself to intercept a bag snatcher in one of several ludicrously formulaic moments. I miss generic 90s bad guys, and the crook in question is straight out of the corporate think-tank, the human incarnation of Poochie from The Simpsons, only instead of a skateboard he uses the even lamer option of roller blades. Usually bag snatchers are desperate heroin addicts straight out of the gutter, but the pristine and colourful way this chump, fittingly credited as ‘Rollerblades’, dresses, leads me to believe that he steals to fund his Gap consumer habit. If it weren’t for Walker’s intervention, this dude would have been rocking a brand new earring the very next day. You won’t find a punk this generic outside of Streets of Rage for the Sega.
Van Damme also sports a truly immaculate mullet, at least his 2004 incarnation does, which of course makes perfect sense (they do say fashion is cyclical). There have been some astonishing mullets in action movies throughout the years, many worn by JCVD himself, but few are as trim as this one. It’s so thick and bouncy and perfectly set that it makes barber shop hair models seem unkempt by comparison. I suppose it makes sense for someone who spends all day leaping through windows and ducking beneath oncoming trucks that tear through dimensions, giving him exactly two seconds to avoid becoming road kill. Which he does, naturally. I barely remembered a thing about Timecop going in, but that truck scene, rightly prominent in the film’s all-action trailer, was what sold me on it all those years ago. Sadly, it’s probably the most breathtaking moment in the entire movie.
Van Damme’s Timecop mullet was actually based on Wolverine from the X-Men comics, which should give you a clearer idea of exactly what we’re dealing with here. The film has its questionable 90s moments, the kind so dated they negate its long-term futuristic aspirations. There’s a ludicrous, mid-90s sex scene that plays out like a racy Kamasutra VHS for married couples. Has anyone actually made love this way outside of a Hollywood movie, all exaggerated thrusts and stilted explosions of pleasure? I seriously hope not. A 2004 Walker spends his time watching home movies of his deceased wife using a voice-activated VCR, yet another lazy speculation with a seriously short shelf-life, but at least they have virtual reality sex in the tech-heavy realms of the new millennium. Well, kind of. It’s basically a VHS recording of some generic beauty purring at the screen, the equivalent of a videotape-based boardgame aimed at horny widowers.
Earlier I called Van Damme smug, and as is apparent from the ridiculous but utterly entertaining moment when he performs the splits in his underwear between two counters to avoid electrocution, becoming a quivering jello of pure muscle in the process, he’s clearly in love with himself. Why the bad guy fires his electric device knowing that he’ll electrocute himself in the process isn’t clear, nor is it clear how our hero managed to escape his electric chamber beyond walking on the ceiling, but it’s a cool moment nonetheless. The difference is, Van Damme can do smug without coming across as a risible asshole, which is a gift in itself. When Seagal, who oozes smug rather than radiating it, acts this way, you kind of wish someone would give him a hiding just to wipe the self-satisfied smirk off his face, whereas Van Damme never fails to make me smile. When I say smug, I mean it in the most positive sense. Van Damme makes smug cool, and often hilarious.
The film’s initial and penultimate timeline takes place in 1994, where Van Damme has volunteered as a security officer for the regulation of time travel, which is lucky since his wife is immediately blown-up and killed (and to think she was worried that her husband’s new job might be dangerous!). During the movie’s first act, Ron Silver’s serpent-like Senator McComb asks, “Why don’t we just prevent time travel rather than spending stupendous amounts of money trying to police it?” A fair point, though he does have his reasons for shutting down the project beyond the practical and cost-effective. McComb wants to change the past and control the future, seeking out a younger, less unconscionable version of himself with some strict instructions on how to go about it, and since he’s responsible for Walker’s ex-partner’s corruption and death, he doesn’t want him travelling back in time and spoiling his plans with a splits-oriented ass-whooping, which he deserves more than most action movie bad guys. In a film full of weakly-sketched characters, the always excellent Silver is a godsend.
On the subject of weakly-sketched characters, Walker has a brand new partner thanks to McComb’s unethical shenanigans, a rookie named Fielding who turns on Walker so quickly you barely get a chance to connect with her. When Fielding (just as abruptly) sees the error of her ways, it hardly registers, and when, in an alternate timeline, the two strangers cross paths and share an ironic “Sorry, do I know you?” moment, you hardly care. It’s like they planned for a buddy element but gave up halfway.
Of course, all of this takes a backseat to the film’s high-concept extravagances. There are so many dilemmas and rapid time travel developments in this movie that it becomes somewhat dubious — about as logical as you can be with such a concept but dubious nonetheless. Ten minutes in the past can mean that friends and colleagues from the future, (or is that the present?) have no idea who you are. This must be particularly problematic for the high-security Time Enforcement Police, who presumably have complete strangers invading their headquarters on a consistent basis, though you wouldn’t know it. Upon his return, Walker is acknowledged as a stranger, his arrival coming as a shock, but he’s immediately welcomed with open arms by a boss who simply takes his word for it, Walker’s knowledge of his wife’s goulash his only real clearance. Call me cautious, but this all seems just a little dangerous. What if a bad guy arrived in Walker’s place with the same story? The entire planet could be doomed as a consequence.
For those who love analysing action movie silliness, there’s plenty to pick at here (wait ’til you get a load of those crappy futuristic cars), and in Silver the makers of Timecop pulled a Hans Gruber by going with an actor with a strong theatrical background. It pays dividends. The characterisation may be scant, but Silver devours the scenery as the smarmy, egomaniacal McComb, a Trump-esque politician with designs on becoming president who boldly proclaims, “We need someone in the Whitehouse so rich he doesn’t have to listen to anyone.” In a priceless moment, McComb smashes someone in the face for interrupting a conversation between his past and future self. His level of self-regard is unruly.
McComb wants a return to the Reagan 80s, a time when the rich ten percent got richer and everyone else fought for scraps. Ironically, by 2004 that ten percent was probably down to around five percent and shrinking, so he’s probably best staying exactly where he is, though I suppose he can always travel back in time and warn himself a second time. Perhaps he can also warn executives about the possible dangers of Van Damme returning for Timecop 2, a project which understandably never materialised for the actor. At least not in this version of reality.