A movie as delirious as Knock Off could only have happened in the 1990s. It’s very existence is like a saturated colour photo of what Hollywood was like in 1998. On that photograph, you can see Jean-Claude Van Damme, eyes too wide, smile too broad, blissfully unaware that his Hollywood star was this close to being snuffed out. There’s Rob Schneider, in that weird post-Saturday Night Live, pre-leading man period of his career where he was still in the ballpark of funny. And strangest of all, there’s Tsui Hark, the legendary Hong Kong action director, armed for the second time in as many years with a coked-up star, an unlikely second fiddle, and 30-ish million dollars in American cash. The results of such an endeavor could be nothing less than insane, and Knock Off does not disappoint.
In a thematically-appropriate twist of fate, a lot of Knock Off feels like, well, a knock off. Though shot in Hong Kong, the film feels like it takes place in a bizarro American version of Hong Kong, or maybe a metropolitan area’s Chinatown. The dialogue, though I’m fairly certain was shot in sync sound, has the distinct re-recorded flavour of post-production ADR all over it. The script feels like it was assembled from the discarded odds and ends of ten years’ worth of Steven E. de Souza’s back catalogue of thwart-the-terrorist action-thriller jams. As such, Knock Off often feels patchy and incoherent, but for better or worse, it always has its foot on the gas. Thankfully, Tsui Hark is talented enough to parlay the film’s weakest element into its greatest asset: its manic visual aesthetic.
Tsui’s camera is restless throughout the film. We follow the camera through bullet holes, somersault through cell phones, and zip through telephone lines like we were little bytes of information. The action set pieces are amazingly choreographed and filmed, and Van Damme deserves much of the credit. Not only are his acrobatics and fighting top-notch, his central performance complements the film’s formal vigour. I mean, I’m glad the man sought help and is sober now, and I’m glad that he’s aged gracefully into pulling off more brooding work, but seeing him barely contained in a film that threatens to come apart at the seams at any given moment is amazing in its own way.
But ultimately, it’s Tsui Hark’s inventiveness and kineticism that elevates the material; there didn’t need to be a series of action-movie power shots detailing the progressive disintegration of fake Pumas while they’re being used, but the movie is better off for including such sequences. The cartoony excessiveness of de Souza’s screenplay — which includes Schneider whipping Van Damme’s ass with an eel during a charity rickshaw race — mostly works because Tsui is always going toe-to-toe with the material. What doesn’t work as well narratively (say, any scene with an extended conversation or a twist reveal of some sort) at least looks excellent. In the end, any structural shortcomings Knock Off might have are trumped by its colourful execution.
Knock Off is available on DVD from Amazon.
Directed by Tsui Hark; written by Steven E. de Souza; starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rob Schneider, Lela Rochon, Paul Sorvino, Carman Lee, Moses Chan, Wyman Wong, Glen Chin, and Michael Fitzgerald Wong; 87 minutes.