Do basketball and kung-fu mix?
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“You can bet your ass they’ll blame me for this one. I wonder what the fine will be.” —Dennis Rodman, last line, Double Team
Throughout a career spent mainly logging time in generic action vehicles, often with “death” in the title—Death Warrant, Sudden Death, Wake Of Death, Until Death—Jean-Claude Van Damme, “The Muscles From Brussels,” has shown an instinct for action cosmopolitanism. Though cultists were keenly aware of the flowering of Hong Kong action cinema in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Van Damme played a key role in bringing HK style to Hollywood. While plenty of people rue the day when John Woo pulled up stakes and started working in the U.S.—and with good reason, since he never quite topped the likes of Hard-Boiled, The Killer, or Bullet In The Head—his American debut, the 1993 Van Damme thriller Hard Target, does a fine job of reconciling Woo’s famously balletic choreography with the conventions of a shit-kicking American action film. Beyond Woo’s specific contribution, or even those of other Hong Kong directors and performers who found a home in Hollywood, the visual language of American actioners started changing dramatically. And Van Damme recognized and encouraged that development more than any other action star, even if he lacked the charisma or taste—or perhaps just the luck—to capitalize on it.
A few years after Hard Target—and just after his uninspired hook-up with Ringo Lam for 1996’s Maximum Risk—Van Damme worked to import another legendary Hong Kong director in Tsui Hark, who had shown incredible versatility and flash in his mid-’80s heyday, from the fantasy-infused wuxia of Zu Warriors From Magic Mountain and A Chinese Ghost Story to the epic historical kung-fu of the Once Upon A Time In China series. Made one after another, in 1997 and 1998 respectively, Tsui’s Van Damme vehicles Double Team and Knock Off were rejected by critics and audiences alike. And not without cause: These are two supremely fucked-up movies, both classic examples of international productions—here a Chinese director, a Belgian star, and American writers—that are more like a large-scale breakdown in communication. Originally, I had intended to write about both films under the banner of entertaining failures, compelling and stupefying in roughly equal measure. But watching them again, the highs and lows—more often lows as highs—of Double Team so far outstrip those of Knock Off that I’ve relegated the latter to postscript.
To understand the intricacies of Double Team, one must first understand Dennis Rodman’s place in the culture in 1997. Because despite Rodman’s recent induction in basketball’s Hall Of Fame, future generations may wonder why a movie with no basketball in it is filled with basketball references. Scratch that: One of the joys of Double Team is that no one from any generation will understand why Rodman, who plays an arms dealer named Yaz, keeps making puns and references to the game as if he’s playing himself. When Double Team was released, Rodman was in the middle of the Chicago Bulls’ second run of championships (the “three-peat repeat”), leading the league in rebounds as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and smartly chosen cast of role players did the rest. (His skills were limited entirely to rebounding and defense, however. He couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with the broadside of another barn, which brings irony to lines like, “The best defense is a good offense.”)
Having earned a reputation as one of the “Bad Boys” of the ’88-89 and 89-90 Detroit Pistons championship teams, Rodman had by 1997 turned his erratic behavior into performance art, appearing on reality TV shows, attracting headlines for his boozy excesses and related legal troubles, and changing his hairstyle like a deranged peacock. In short, he was a Charlie Sheen type: Endlessly indulged for his misdeeds so long as he showed up (relatively) sober, did his job, and fattened a few wallets. The sad trajectory of his life can be traced by the titles of his last three memoirs: 1996’s Bad As I Wanna Be, 1997’s Walk On The Wild Side, and 2005’s I Should Be Dead By Now. The Rodman of Double Team was the Bad As I Wanna Be/ Walk On The Wild Side Rodman, the irreverent party guy looking to expand his brand. His train wreck of a life was—and sadly, continues to be—tailor-made for reality television; remove him from that context and he’s just a tall guy with purple hair who can’t act. That none of the gatekeepers—not Tsui, not Van Damme, not any of the money people—recognized this fact speaks to the cultural tone-deafness that makes the film so bizarrely compelling.
Then again, Double Team doesn’t always recognize how best to use Van Damme, whose fists of fury are often pocketed in favor of traditional stunts or awkward buddy comedy. The opening sequence has Van Damme, as retiring CIA agent Jack Quinn, responding to a terrorist threat by barreling an armored vehicle through a gauntlet at top speed. Three years later, Quinn gets pulled out of retirement for One Last Job to take down Stavros, a criminal mastermind played by a resplendently bronzed, frequently shirtless, likely steroidal Mickey Rourke. When a failed sting operation leaves Stavros’ girlfriend and infant son dead, Stavros takes revenge by kidnapping Quinn’s pregnant wife. This is where Quinn enlists Yaz, a weapons dealer who keeps a cache of high-tech guns and explosives in the back room of an Antwerp nightclub. Van Damme one-liners, Pistons references, a guy paddling around in a large water tank wearing S&M-themed scuba gear: Truly an introduction worthy of Dennis Rodman.
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It says something that an untethered Rourke performance, during a period somewhere close to the absolute low point of his career, doesn’t rank close to the most eccentric elements of Double Team. A few weirder ones:
- “The Colony,” a secluded, heavily guarded island populated by CIA agents who have gone missing and are presumed dead, yet are considered “too valuable to kill and too dangerous to set free.” Half resort paradise, half high-tech think tank for analyzing terrorist threats, The Colony keeps the agents penned in via underwater lasers.
- Yaz has a basketball-themed novelty parachute. When he rips the cord and lands softly, he says, “Now that’s what I call hangtime.”
- In order to track down where his wife is located, Quinn needs to figure out which Roman doctor prescribed the contraction-inducement drug Pitocin. Happily, “Brother Yaz” is in good with an underground legion of “cyber-monks” who get that information through “a mainframe processor that must be seen to be believed.”
- At one point, Yaz and Quinn go incognito by dressing, respectively, as a 6-foot-7, fedora-donning dandy and a mop-topped street punk who looks imported from a mid-’80s breakdancing movie. They’re like chameleons.
- When the Coliseum goes up in a giant explosion, a Coke machine is the only thing standing between our heroes and fiery oblivion.
And so on. Critics dismissed Double Team as merely inane at the time, but how could so few entertain the notion that its inanity was somewhat tongue-in-cheek? While it’s true that the connective tissue of Don Jakoby and Paul Mones’ screenplay is mostly international action-thriller boilerplate—CIA agents, terrorists, cool weapons, gadgets, fights, explosions, et al.—its loony pleasures can’t possibly be accidental. Tasked with incorporating a peculiar checklist of commercial elements into the film—including but not limited to Rodman, prominent Coke product placement, and the Bengal tiger of Mandalay Entertainment’s logo—the filmmakers responded with a sidekick who constantly references basketball without any evidence that he’s played it and a finale involving a man-eating tiger and a life-saving Coke vending machine. Let’s see Charlie Kaufman pull off something better than that.
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So where’s Tsui in all this? When it comes to the performances, the story, and the goofiness in the margins, he seems largely absent, content to allow the perfunctory, straight-to-video plotting and the eccentric casting and absurdities to play themselves out. As we’ve seen several times in New Cult Canon, the coming-together of different cultures—Italians and Utahans in Troll 2, say, or the France/Hong Kong divide in Irma Vep—inevitably gives films a distinctive flavor, intended or not. While Tsui busies himself with the action sequences, which are by and large inventively (or, at worst, competently) orchestrated—the carnival sequence is a particular standout—the rest of Double Team goes straight off a cliff. And without a basketball-themed parachute to soften the fall.
On Knock Off: I remembered Knock Off for one inspired bit of silliness in which Van Damme dashes through Hong Kong in a rickshaw race with Rob Schneider, his passenger, whipping him with an eel. Save for an impressive finale aboard a cargo ship with a slick deck, the rest of the film struck me as too lackluster for canon consideration. Not to say there aren’t interesting things going on, most notably an attempt by Tsui and Van Damme to bring Hollywood action back to Hong Kong, rather than the other way around. Tsui also wants to say something about the handover of the city from Britain to China, but I’m not entirely sure what that is, other than the open market mingling cheap knock-off products with the real thing. It’s also the only explicitly comedic Van Damme performance I can recall—and for good reason.
May 19: The Vanishing (non-shitty version)
June 2: Schizopolis
June 16: May