Before he came in the easily brandied about moniker of JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme cut his teeth has the high kicking Belgian bad ass of many raucous action flicks. Taking the torch of manly action from the 80’s into the 90’s, Van Damme round housed his way through insane plots which would often feature himself in the dual role of his brother, or paired with pop culture superstars du jour (like Dennis Rodman). The more absurd his films became, the more endearingly action fans clung to him, but the dynamic of actions films took a dramatic turn away from his style. The bottom dropped out, and in the wake of a new brand of actioner, he was found wanting. An interesting thing happened then: many fans tried to retroactively abandon his ship. What was excused and hand waved away as part of the fun of the time was now being laughed at and mocked in retrospect. One of his films, though, stands strong against a tide of merciless mockery. Upon the backs of Street Fighter, Double Team, Hard Target, and Sudden Death, rises a shining example of excellent 90’s filmmaking: Timecop.
1994’s Timecop is the story of Walker (Van Damme), an agent of the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC). Time travel is a recent innovation and, in order to prevent its misuse, TEC polices it by sending agents after rogue travellers. Van Damme plays Walker as a burnt out man, merely going through the motions out of a sense of duty. Having lost his wife ten years prior (ironically on the day he accepted his position at the TEC), Walker is constantly dogged by the knowledge that he can’t use this powerful technology to save his lost wife. That compulsion drives him to thwart anyone who would use it to merely profit financially. It works really well here, with Van Damme subduing his normally campy protagonist persona for something more relatable. It’s a “mistake” he wouldn’t make again, apparently.
Exerting his force opposite Walker is the senator who heads the TEC’s oversight committee, McComb (played with charismatic sleaze by the sadly passed Ron Silver). The good senator is misusing time travel in order to fund his run for the presidency. With the threat of the death of their ancestors (thus wiping opponents out of existence), McComb works an angle more compelling that any mob boss could ever call to bear. The setup would almost come off as mustache twirling villainy, except that Silver’s deadly serious demeanor sells it. (Fellow fans of Mr. Silver should seek out the unsuccessful pilot for Ben Stiller’s Heat Vision and Jack, which featured him in the role of the big bad. It’s available in 3 parts on YouTube and also features Owen Wilson as a talking motorcycle)
The fight choreography on display is of a much more believable variety then we’d become accustomed to from Van Damme, though you’ll find his usual set of unnecessary splits, and kick sequences designed solely to showcase his ego. Despite that the motivation, it continues to be impressive, otherwise we wouldn’t keep coming around to watch it. And turn out in droves the audiences did. Timecop earned over $103 million dollars, making it Jean-Claude’s highest grossing starting role.
One of the most interesting tidbits about Timecop is that it used one of the sets from The Hudsucker Proxy. The 1929 sequence, where Walker is apprehending a former partner who engineered financial gain for McComb while simultaneous causing the stock market crash, shares a fascinatingly unintended similarity to the Cohen Brothers film. Both feature a character diving through a window to their death (though The Hudsucker Proxy uses it to setup a hilarious joke). Coincidence? Perhaps. Then it’s also coincidental that both of these films still live among my VHS collection (hooray plastic rectangles of delight!).
The light of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s star may have drastically dimmed since his super noval 90’s, but if you’re looking for a testosterone filled camp-fest, any number of his flicks could be exactly what Dr. Maniac ordered. Though Timecop is his highest quality film, a great many arguments can be made to how much fun many of the others are (I’m a total sucker for Street Fighter despite, or perhaps because of, the cheese factor). So the next time someone goes for the low hanging fruit of a Van Damme joke, remind them that Timecop was a quality entry in his filmography. It may just remind them of a time when film viewers could afford a little more civility and quite a bit less cynicism. What’s your favorite JCVD motion picture?
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Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.