Van Dammage Report: Knock Off

It’s not often that one must recommend multiple viewings in order to “get” a Jean-Claude Van Damme film, but in the case of Knock Off it’s absolutely essential. There is no labyrinthine plot to follow, nor a twist so massive and unexpected that it turns the rest of the film on its head. Rather, there’s simply so much going and so much that is presented in a way that is often unlike anything typically seen even within an action flick that it’s overwhelming in a way none of his films have been before or since.

If Double Team is, as described in the previous entry, akin to a fever dream then Knock Off is essentially the Hong Kong cinema equivalent of having a full-blown surreal meltdown. Across Van Damme’s entire filmography as yet, there is no other film that comes close to delivering the sort of unhinged weirdness that is found within the 91 minutes of Knock Off. Only Double Team comes close, and even that movie essentially feels like a dry run for what returning director Tsui Hark would deliver.

Van Damme’s work with some of Hong Kong’s finest directors remains a high watermark for his career, but of those it’s Knock Off which feels most akin to those native works and not fairly watered down in the same way as, say, Hard Target. There’s a certain kinetic energy found in Hong Kong films, a manic pulse that pounds throughout and propels them in a way that’s unique to the country. Knock Off displays that X Factor in spades from minute one and never lets up.

How weird does this thing get? Let’s have a brief rundown. Knock Off contains the following: Green explosions. POV shots for the following items: A human foot, a gun barrel, a newspaper, a dim sum cart. A tracking shot following the frequency of a cell phone. More green explosions. A guy getting killed by a rocket shot out of a safe. A POV shot of the rocket before it gets fired from said safe. Rob Schneider as a CIA agent. Rob Schneider as a CIA agent slapping Van Damme’s ass with an eel as Van Damme pulls him along in a rickshaw race. A giant Buddha statue being exploded and then engulfed by green flame. A villainous henchman who tries to kill Van Damme using his eyeglass lenses. A plot that hinges on exploding counterfeit blue jeans. Paul Sorvino. All written by Steven de Souza, the same man who brought you the scripts to Die Hard, Commando and 48 Hours, as well as writing and directing Van Damme in Street Fighter.

I’ll wait here as you all run out to buy this thing on DVD.

Knock Off may be wall-to-wall chaos, but Hark always feels in control, always purposefully guiding the audience through the madness. Every shot is framed as if it’s “The Most Interesting Thing Ever,” every explosion and fight scene a chance to present these things in an unexpected way. It never feels as though Hark is simply throwing things onto the screen hoping that something, anything will stick. It is deliberate in its madness.

There actually is a plot here, however. It’s not just an impressionistic action flick touting green flames and rickshaw races. (Though God knows I’d certainly watch that in a heartbeat.) Van Damme plays Marcus Ray, Hong Kong’s top knock off merchant who’s left his counterfeit life behind in hopes of going legit. Doing so means partnering up with Eddie (Rob Schneider), a fashion designer and Hong Kong rep for V-Six Jeans. Only, Eddie’s actually a CIA agent and the jeans he and Ray peddle are cheap knock offs that secretly house nano-explosives put there by the Russians. It’s as much a comedy as it is anything else, and I’m sure the fact that it swings from moments of slightly off-kilter comedy to all-out brawls and then back again (or sometimes both at the same time) with little warning is what put off audiences and made this bomb at the box office.

That said, what makes Knock Off stand out so much among so much of Van Damme’s filmography isn’t just the wacky vibe or the fact that Schneider is actually pretty good in it. It’s that this is the one film of his that comes closest to feeling like a true Hong Kong action film. The choreography, the fights involving swarms of faceless Asian henchmen all wielding machetes, the fluidity of Hark’s camera in said fights and the improvised feel of the fight scenes make it feel like something Jackie Chan might’ve done. It’s a movie that never takes itself seriously for a single second and it’s difficult not to just laugh right along with it at every turn. Hark imbues Knock Off with this sort of devil may care energy, flipping, sliding, panning and craning his camera in unexpected ways that make it look like no other martial arts flick I’ve ever watched. Hark has certainly directed (and produced) better, more important movies, but there’s something to be said about a movie where he just sort of thumbs his nose at everyone and everything and makes something this unabashedly silly.

As for Van Damme himself, he fits the madness of these proceedings like a glove. Less so than in Double Team, but in Knock Off particularly one gets the sense that Van Damme was able to let loose for a change. His roles typically ask him to play deadly serious, often dour characters, so grasping onto a role like Ray looks almost liberating in a way. If nothing else, it shows his capacity for comedy which is by far his most under-utilized skill.

Knock Off is, ironically, one-of-a-kind. It’s a shame that we never got any further team-ups between JCVD and Hark, but the fact that we got one film so uniquely weird and, in a way, perfect is its own reward.

Van Dammage Report Statistics for Knock Off:

Number of splits: 0

Number of splitkicks: 1

Best line: Marcus Ray bragging about his reputation as a knock off distributor: “I always make a quality piece of crap.”

Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Double TeamMaximum RiskThe QuestSudden Death | Street Fighter | Timecop | Hard Target | Nowhere to Run | Universal Soldier | Double Impact | Death Warrant | Lionheart | Kickboxer | Cyborg | Bloodsport