October 1, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Timecop (1994)

by Nick Schager

Timecop

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Rian Johnson's time-travel actioner Looper.]

Were director Peter Hyams a literalist, he might have renamed Timecop, his 1994 action-adventure starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, as Time Travel Kicks to the Face, as even more than its past-present flip-flopping, the defining characteristic of this relic is its obsession with the foot assaults perpetrated by its lead. The "Muscles From Brussels" kicks so many people in the face during the course of the film's 99 minutes that Mark Verheiden's screenplay is actually forced to eventually acknowledge this foot-to-face fixation, with Ron Silver's evil Senator McComb, during the climax, quipping to Van Damme's cop Walker that he's an idiot because he never learned that his kicking skills were best suited for Broadway. That's not the only moment of self-conscious levity in Hyams' saga, since at the outset Walker's wife Melissa (Mia Sara) cracks wise about Walker's lousy English. That dig at Van Damme's heavily accented line deliveries is in keeping with the generally lighthearted spirit of these proceedings, which concern a 2004 in which the United States, having developed the ability to travel back in time (but not forward, because the future hasn't yet occurred), must now police it, lest criminals exploit the technology to make money and, worse still, alter events in ways that will have terrible ramifications for the present.

Timecop

Walker is one of the officers tasked with stopping baddies from using time travel for personal profit, a task made even more difficult by the fact that—as seen in an intro passage—twenty years earlier in 1994, his wife Melissa was murdered, and he was left for dead, by mysterious thugs. And, unbeknownst to him, this tragedy occurred right at the moment Melissa was going to reveal that she was pregnant, news that, per cliché, is interrupted by a phone call from work that she begs Walker to ignore, to no avail. Hyams doesn't hide the fact that McComb is behind that homicide, nor that he's determined to use time travel for nefarious purposes, which in this case involves investing in the stock market right after the 1929 crash, and convincing himself to not pass up a business deal in 1994, all in order to raise enough funds to guarantee himself the U.S. presidency. Why out-campaigning rivals on TV assures one the Oval Office in 2004 is unclear. Then again, it's also unclear why car manufactures have opted to turn all vehicles into ugly, clunky pseudo-space ships, or, for that matter, how time travel actually works, though it involves another space shuttle-style contraption that rides on rails and zaps people into the past, literally dropping them into environments without rhyme or reason.

Timecop

Illogicality guides much of Timecop, especially with regards to the fact that McComb, after failing to kill Walker during his initial attempt thanks to the cop's trusty bulletproof vest, doesn't correct his mistake by simply traveling back in time and trying again by shooting him in the head. Then again, part of the film's charm is its breezy disinterest in the paradoxical complications that inevitably arise from its central conceit; rather, it's a film that's mostly interested in Van Damme, and his foot strikes, which are prodigious. The only time Timecop truly lags, action-wise, are the moments when Van Damme is forced to merely run about firing futuristic firearms. But courtesy of Hyams' clean direction, which allows constantly coherent views of the material's many fights, Van Damme's one-against-many scuffles are uniformly excellent—less brutal than the star's earlier battles in Bloodsport and Lionheart, to be sure, but bolstered by the actor's goofy desire to show off his flexibility at every turn, culminating with the sight of him avoiding electrocution-by-spilled-water by leaping and suspending himself on his kitchen counters while doing a split.

Timecop

Aside from a Civil War prologue and a 1929 sequence that features Van Damme nabbing his former partner-turned-crook by jumping out of a high-rise building to prevent the guy from committing suicide (he's needed for testimony), Hyams doesn't go overboard with period detail, instead cutting corners by having most of his "past" action take place in 1994 (i.e. the "present" of the film's production). None of that detracts from the B-movie pleasures of this nonsense, courtesy of a fleet pace, silly-but-still-strong fisticuffs, and the cornball ridiculousness of Van Damme's one-liners, the best of which features Walker, after freezing a guy's arm off and merely uttering "Have a nice day," immediately correcting himself with "I guess I should have said 'Freeze." If any one element makes Timecop truly memorable, however, it's Van Damme's magnificent head of hair. Poofy on top, slicked back on the sides, and long in the back, it's an immobile work of art, barely swaying except at its very bottom and capable of maintaining its perfect helmet-head shape even in the rain. It's a European Mullet par excellence, and its cheesy awesomeness is, put simply, timeless.



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Posted by ahillis at October 1, 2012 4:04 PM