Saturday, 17 December 2011

Knock Off (Tsui Hark, 1998)



Knock-off could represent either the nadir of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career or his highest peak, depending on what you look for in a direct to video action film. It is a film layered so densely with logic-dodging brain punches that it is hard to believe it was written by the same guy who wrote Die Hard and directed by Hong Kong auteur Tsui Hark.

Along with John Woo and Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark was a fundamental figure in the wave of Hong Kong action films that made their way to western shores during the mid-nineties. Despite working primarily in well worn genres, Hark still demonstrated a proclivity for experimentation and innovation. Once Upon a Time in China (Hark, 1991) is ambitious in both scope and narrative while The Blade aka Dao (Hark, 1995) exuberantly uses the ‘shaky-cam’ techniques now so common in modern action cinema, albeit a decade earlier.

Following on from John Woo’s successful (at that point) relocation to America that began with the Van Damme collaboration Hard Target (Woo, 1993), Hark targeted the international market with his own Van Damme collaborations Double-Team (Hark, 1997) and Knock-Off (Hark, 1998).

Hark’s camera moves and frames in a way not too dissimilar to that of Sam Raimi’s. Like Raimi his frenetic, subjective camerawork can serve to elevate material from gritty brutality to an exciting, energetic and delirious dance. This gives a fresh energy to otherwise relatively straight forward subject matter, yet because the subject matter and logic of Knock-Off is so out there in the first place, the application of this style just makes the film all the more ludicrous.


This brings us neatly to the story. Van Damme plays a fashion designer/clothing retailer who, with his new partner played by Rob Schneider (who is by no means the worst thing in this film, which should tell you plenty), attempts to put his past life as a bootlegger behind him. Unfortunately for them, their legitimate products are being intercepted and swapped for cheap knock-offs by Russians (I think) who then sew tiny button-sized explosives into them. Once these explosive jeans have been shipped throughout the world the Russians would have a stranglehold on the entire planet. I watched this film not twenty-four hours before writing this article and I can’t remember for the life of me why the Russians would want to do such a thing. But let's not let a little detail like motivation get in the way of all this fun. The film-makers didn't.

So it is a film about exploding trousers, basically. As the plot unfolds, just about everyone turns out to be either a bad guy or a CIA agent, or both, and a shirtless Van Damme eventually saves the day. Not crazy enough for you? Okay, let me run you through some of the films more inspired moments.

  1. The homo-erotic rickshaw race: During the start of the film Van Damme and Schneider participate in a cross-city rickshaw race. I have no idea why this event takes place, but what I can tell you is that it ends with Schneider slapping Van Damme across the backside with an eel yelling “move that beautiful ass”. I did not make this up.

  2. The kung-fu fighting fashion designer: I do love the ways in which we are led to believe the central characters in some action films can at once end up in a situation completely by accident, yet also somehow have all the required skills to get themselves out of it. Steven Seagal normally plays a cop or an ex-special forces operative, which makes sense. I’m even happy to accept the mysterious bad-ass (whose background is sufficiently shady enough to not rule out the learning of combat skills somewhere) or the everyman, providing it was referenced that said everyman had some kind of interest in martial arts. Van Damme was pushing it with Sudden Death (Peter Hyams, 1995), where he played a karate-fighting fire marshal, but a fashion designer? Seriously? Even assuming that in his counterfeiting days he dealt with some shady characters, I’m not just going to assume that in between making fake Nike’s and cheap purses he learnt to scale walls, somersault, fire handguns and fight like a karate champ. The only overly-macho-for-his-job character to trump this is the investigative fireworks organiser in The Return of the Evil Dead (Amando De Ossorio, 1973) .

  3. The missile in the safe: You are international saboteurs with access to miniature explosives and you want to subtly kill a potential loose end by rigging up something in his safe. Do use you use said explosives? Nope. Instead you rig a FULL SIZED ROCKET PROPELLED MISSILE in the guys' safe that fires into him. The missile then carries him through the air, out of his apartment and across the street exploding into the opposite wall. Clean, efficient and a good way to make it look like an accident. Job well done.

  4. The least subtle safe-house ever: The CIA have travelled to Hong Kong to investigate the exploding trouser plot. Following what I can only imagine is standard operating procedure, they set up their safe-house not in an inconspicuous location, but it in a high-tech base beneath a bloody great national landmark. In this case, under a tourist heavy statue of Buddha.

  5. The least convincing stunt doubles I’ve seen in some time: You hire Van Damme when you want your film to be full of the splits and slow-motion reverse roundhouse kicks. That’s what he is good at. But what if you want to fill your film with backflips, somersaults and the kind of assorted acrobatics synonymous with Hong Kong martial arts cinema (all of which require a completely different physicality and body language)? Recast? Re-choreograph? Or perhaps just hire a completely different stunt double to handle most of the action sequences. As you might presume, this leads to a little inconsistency. With the exception of the final action sequence, which I’ll get to later, every action sequence is horribly disjointed as we cut back and forth between Van Damme and his shorter, lighter and far more acrobatic stunt double.




Add to all this Van Damme’s strangulation of most of the dialogue and Hark’s use of slow-motion, strobing, ghosting, freeze frames and every other trick in the book makes most of the film seem like a montage or drink induced hallucination. It's the kind of film you end up thinking you imagined.

When we arrive at the film’s climatic sequence, however, it threatens to become a competent, and dare I say exciting, action film. The fist and gun fight aboard a cargo ship is directed with a controlled energy and clarity not seen anywhere else in the film. Suddenly all the elements that previously butted heads are now working together. It almost makes one wish the cast and crew had a shot at a real story.

But what we do have is a marvellously insane 90 minutes that does not fail to entertain. In fact, the only thing stopping this from being a masterpiece of unintentional* entertainment is that it is not called Hot Pants.

This is a film I recommend with caution: you are either going to love it for it’s flaws or just plain hate it for them.





*I say unintentional, but I would put money on that some of the creative team, if not the director himself, is just taking the piss.

1 comment:

  1. Props go to the people who edited that trailer for not only avoiding any mention of exploding trousers but for also getting Optimus Prime to do the voice over. Consider that turd polished.

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