Directed by Tsui Hark. Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rob Schneider, Lela Rochon, Paul Sorvino, Michael Wong. (1998, R, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Sept. 11, 1998
Maybe those of us who are always whining about the need for more originality in the action movie genre should pay a little more heed to the old be-careful-what-you-wish-for principle. Director Tsui Hark, who still hasn't quite come down off the stylistic bender of his '96 avant garde swordsman opus, The Blade, certainly can't be accused of cranking out another boilerplate Hong Kong actioner here. But although Knock Off's outrageous bounty of visual creativity sets it well apart from most movies dominated by dialogue like “WOOMPH!,” “HWUULP!,” and “AAAAGH!,” that fact doesn't constitute a must-see endorsement. Put another way, I'm not sure that viewers looking for another Double Team-style adrenaline O.D. will respond favorably to an action mise-en-scene in which ultra-closeups of walls, ceilings, and concrete pilings often seem to receive equal billing with Van Damme's smashmouth kickboxing moves. Sure, it's dazzling to watch the UT-schooled Hark pull out all the stops with stop-motion photography, manic pans and zooms, dim ambient lighting, and calculatedly jumpy edits. Inevitably, though, frustration sets in as it becomes all but impossible to tell who's kicking whose asses -- or indeed what specific blurrily photographed body parts are being kicked. It's kind of like watching an enthusiastic eight-year-old play with the zoom and focus buttons on the family videocam. Plot? Well, it's another of those insanely labyrinthine deals in which scruffy Russian mafiosi (God, I miss the KGB and the whole darned world communist conspiracy!) battle the CIA and various moles, local hoods, and counter-counterspies for control of deadly weapons technology. Andro 6 poster boy Jean-Claude, now seemingly resigned to his fate as a well-compensated also-ran in the hybrid martial arts/shoot-'em-up genre, brings his usual mush-mouthed charm and array of mannequin-like expressions to his role as a humble leisure-wear merchant caught up in the fray. As-yet-undeceased Saturday Night Live alum Schneider is borderline amusing in the obligatory raffish sidekick role. In essence, the whole Knock Off experience can be summed up neatly in four words: loud, stupid, blurry, frenetic. (And, maybe, fun as well, if the preceding adjectives pique your interest.) As I've noted, Hark pulls off the whole operation with an admirable degree of energy, invention, and technical envelope-pushing, all of which surpass the meager standards of Double Team. He also earns additional groundbreaker points for making what I believe to be the first action movie based in the seamy netherworld of fake designer fashion. Still, regrettably, the simple equation holds true that Dumb Van Damme Flick -- Dennis Rodman + Artsy Camera Tricks = Dumb, Artsy Van Damme Flick. Compelling appeal to your entertainment budget? You make the call, folks.