Van Dammage Report: Timecop

Timecop Van Damme

I kind of feel bad for Timecop.

Whatever came after Hard Target was always going to have an uphill battle in terms of surpassing what still stands as one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best movies. Go for anything less than broke and it’s going to feel underwhelming and tame compared to the lunacy of John Woo’s North American debut. I don’t think anyone really considered director Peter Hyams to be Woo’s equal, but watching his 1994 time-travel actioner only further drives that point home.

Not that that seemed to matter to action fans. Audiences were apparently still high enough on Hard Target to boost Timecop to a box office gross of just over $101 million worldwide, Van Damme’s most financially successful film, a title it retains to this day. (Note: I’m not counting The Expendables 2 since that’s not really “his” movie, even if he is the best thing about it.) And yet, Timecop is one of his more underwhelming movies, a sentiment I didn’t expect to harbor considering my fondness for it preceding this revisitation.

Set in the far-flung future of 2004, Van Damme plays Walker, an agent for the Time Enforcement Commission, a secret government organization that polices the time stream to make sure that no one goes into the past and gets rich or kills Hitler, or anything else that could cause drastic (potentially world-ending) ripples through time. Things get real messy real quick, however, once Walker learns that Senator McComb (Ron Silver), the very same Congressman who volunteered to oversee the TEC, has been going back and stealing money to provide near-limitless funding for his would-be presidential campaign.

It’s a pretty goofy plot, so it wasn’t a real surprise to find out that this was all based on a Dark Horse Comics mini-series, though the film bears largely a superficial resemblance and doesn’t follow the plot of the source material at all. I imagine this deviation was due to budgetary reasons. With only $27 million at your disposal, it’d be pretty difficult to convincingly travel to different eras. As such, it leaves things feeling fairly insubstantial given that the central hook is barely exploited or explored. There’s a fun opening bit where a white supremacist goes back in time and uses machine guns to rob a Confederate squad of their shipment of gold and then a brief jaunt to 1929, but otherwise the time travel is limited to Walker going back to … 1994. Granted, the way time travel works in the film it’d be a little difficult for there to be a bunch of jumping from era to era, but it still feels like a pretty big missed opportunity to have most of the temporal hopping relegated to traveling back to what (at the time) amounted to the present day.

Part of the problem too is that the script never really plays to Van Damme’s strengths. Timecop calls for Walker to be sullen and brooding for most of the movie, and those aren’t really qualities he can pull off in an interesting or engaging way. Instead he just kind of looks bored for most of the movie. But hey, at least we get one of his most memorable execution of splits. His countertop splits are impressive enough as is, but I confess I can’t help but immediately think of how the scene got spoofed by David Letterman and Paul Schaeffer.

So what makes this worthwhile? Well, the concept may not be exploited to its fullest, but there’s still enough inherent fun within the idea of a time-traveling police force to give the movie adequate juice to keep things afloat. There are a couple decent action beats. It’s always funny to see what people thought post-2000 technology would look like (I dare you not to laugh when you see the cars people drive around in). But most of all, it’s the late Ron Silver that makes each subsequent viewing the most fun. Silver was such a fun character actor and he had such a particular presence. It wasn’t a persona, per se, but you could always expect a certain prickly quality from Silver’s characters that nevertheless made them so much fun to watch. And that’s no less true here, as he seems to relish the opportunity to play such an arrogant prick as McComb.

What I find most interesting about Timecop, however, is in what it didn’t do for Van Damme. This is his highest-grossing film, so you would think that he’d continue to seek out similar material. And yet, save for his continued dalliances with the Universal Soldier series, this was his last real hard genre picture. Nearly everything else he’d tackle from here on out would be fairly straightforward action flicks. Nothing else he’s done since has been as high concept as this, and this was right as his career was hitting its stride.

His next project, however, is (for my money) one of his most memorable. Released the same year as Timecop, Van Damme also starred in the infamous adaptation of Capcom’s hit arcade game series, Street Fighter.

But that’s not what I’ll be writing about on the next Van Dammage Report, when I’ll be taking a look at Van Damme in primetime with a review of his appearance on NBC’s Friends.

Van Dammage Report Statistics for Hard Target:

Number of splits: 2

Number of split kicks: 0

Reason for being European: None given.

Best line: “I should have said ‘Freeze.'” Walker, lamenting to McComb that he didn’t have a pithier one-liner after shattering in half a henchman frozen by liquid nitrogen.

Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Hard TargetNowhere to RunUniversal SoldierDouble Impact,
Death WarrantLionheartKickboxerCyborgBloodsport.