Director Spotlight: That Time Tsui Hark Directed Two Jean-Claude Van Damme Flicks

In the early '90s Hong Kong directors had a hard time breaking into the Hollywood action market. John Woo was the first one to really be successful in this arena with his film Hard Target (1993) starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. For whatever reason Van Damme became the focus of other Hong Kong directors trying to dip their toes into Hollywood as he made two films with famed wuxia director Tsui Hark--Double Team (1997) and Knock Off (1998), as well as Maximum Risk (1996) with Ringo Lam.

Unfortunately, Hark's films didn't take off like Woo's did and after two flops he decided to go back to making films in his home country. Hark's style is a lot more fantastical than Woo's and it would seem that it didn't translate well with American audiences as compared to Woo's more straightforward action pieces. That all being said, Tsui Hark's Van Damme movies are some of the most gloriously over-the-top train wrecks committed to celluloid, and we shall be exploring both of them thoroughly. Perhaps some of the more perplexing questions can be answered? Like, why is Dennis Rodman in Double Team? Why did they decide to make an action movie about counterfeit designer jeans? Let us dive deep into the world of Van Damme fronted Tsui Hark flicks!

Double Team (1997)

"I can shoot the dick off a hummingbird with this gun!"

Despite winning Razzie Awards for Worst New Star, Worst Supporting Actor (both by Dennis Rodman), and Worst Screen Couple, I am here to tell you that Double Team (1997) is one of the most entertaining films ever made and well worth seeking out. This was Tsui Hark's Hollywood debut and while it has a lot of his trademarks: crazy camera angles, bizarre action set-pieces, and creative framing, it is also saddled with one of the most ridiculous plots of all time and some truly awful writing and acting.

Double Team feels like three movies mashed into one--it starts out as a spy caper, then it morphs into an homage to the television series The Prisoner (1967), and then it turns into a buddy cop flick, and finally it ends with a tiger fight in the Colosseum in Rome. Does it transition from each of these genres smoothly? Hell no! This film is the cinematic equivalent of getting whiplash in a car accident as it turns on a dime to incorporate more wacky ass elements. The ending is one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed and I'll just say it involves an explosion, a coke machine, and a shirtless Micky Rourke. 

This was basketball star Dennis Rodman's film debut and it's...something. He supposed to be playing an arms dealer named Yaz, but quite frankly, he's just playing himself. He saunters around in fabulous spandex outfits saying sexual innuendos and basketball puns and every other scene his iconic hair changes colors. When does he have time to dye his hair? Nobody knows. It feels like Jean-Claude Van Damme has no idea what to make of him either in real life or in the film and watching them "interact" is painful and hilarious. Either way, Rodman is absolutely the best thing about Double Team and he should have won an Oscar for his performance. Oh, and he has a parachute that looks like a basketball. Just saying.

I just can’t get over the structure of this movie. Hark made one of his fantasy style Hong Kong movies but just reskinned it with an American action film aesthetic. These two things do not mix AT ALL but that’s what makes this so damn amazing. Did you ever want to see Van Damme squat an entire bathtub full of water? Do you want to see Dennis Rodman ride a dirt bike in a Colosseum filled with landmines to save a baby? Do you enjoy Mom Jeans? Double Team is the answer to all these dreams and more! I'm definitely not saying this should be one's introduction to the filmography of Tsui Hark, who is a fantastic and established director in his home country of China, but it's an intriguing train-wreck of an experiment of Hollywood trying out Hong Kong style action.

Knock Off (1998)

“I’m convinced that this is really not my song, I bought it in Hong Kong, it’s a knock off. I’m convinced that we were really holding hands, sorry that’s no hand, it’s a knock off. So close to real, the look, the feel, so close and yet, the paint’s still wet.”

--Lyrics from "It's a Knock Off" by Sparks

Knock Off (1998) was Tsui Hark's second and final attempt at making a Hollywood action film and he teamed up again with Jean-Claude Van Damme with Rob Schneider as the comic relief. Steven E. de Souza wrote the script as a satire of action films but it feels like Hark missed the point entirely and took it seriously. Why wouldn't he though, he is trying to prove himself as a viable director for films in the West!

So Knock Off is a double entendre--in this case referring to counterfeit goods and also taking out or killing an adversary. The entire film revolves around two business men who are making knock off designer jeans (played by Van Damme and Schneider). This simple story splinters off into an incomprehensible mess of side plots and revelations with CIA agents, the Russian Mafia, a plot by the KGB to put nanobombs (which are made to look like rivets) in a shipment of jeans to extort billions of dollars from the word superpowers, and a CIA headquarters that is hidden inside a statue of Buddha. It sounds like I am making all this shit up, but I assure you this is really what happens in this flick.

There is no point in trying to follow the narrative but thankfully, Knock Off is still fun to watch thanks to Hark's dynamic camera work and some pretty well choreographed action set-pieces. Hark has a way of depicting everyday activities is an outlandish fashion. In a normal movie, if a character calls another character on the phone you usually get a shot/reverse shot of them talking back and forth or maybe a split-screen if the director is being extra fancy. Boring but functional. A phone convo in this film has the character making the call then the camera zooms inside the phone where we see the signal travel through the wiring to get transmitted to the recipient. Is this needed? No, but it's goddamn entertaining! Every shot is constructed in the most extra way possible--zooming through household objects, dutch angles everywhere, tracking shots, seeing things from the point-of-view of a shoe, it's absolute madness!

If you have ever wanted to see Van Damme singing to a Cantonese pop song while driving a convertible, this is the movie for you. As an aside, Hark isn't shy with using female gaze style sex appeal with Van Damme and in both Double Team and Knock Off he has Van Damme running around in his underwear. I'm not complaining, but it's not something you see often. The acting is not good and Schneider manages to be even less funny than he normally is which is quite an achievement. He is definitely no Dennis Rodman, though he does have a few colorful shirts.

Tsui Hark returned to China after making this film as he was quite disenfranchised with the Hollywood machine at this point (rightly so) and that was the end of his experiment with making action films over here. Fortunately, we got two ridiculous flicks out of this debacle that are worth exploring as curiosity pieces. 

--Michelle Kisner