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FUTURE JOCK

If you want to move up in the superhero pecking order, as Belgian hulk Jean-Claude Van Damme does, you'd better outslug Sly and outshoot Schwarzenegger. You must snap more necks than Steven Seagal, and just in case you hear Chuck Norris closing fast, it's wise to keep your killer kicks in top form. A couple of well-placed jokes won't hurt, either.

Jean-Claude tries his Van-damnedest on all these counts in Timecop, but in the end this is still a second-rate action fantasy filled with secondhand ideas, and Van Damme still checks in at number four or five on the meat list. Next time, he'd do well to rip some half-tracks apart with his hands or decapitate Saddam Hussein.

Mark Verheiden's tricked-up script, based on comic books he writes with Mike Richardson, is a familiar fusion of Back to the Future and Groundhog Day, propelled by laser weapons. It is 2004, and some wiseguy scientist has perfected time travel. Like, cool, except that not everyone wants to revisit the Fifties to save Mom and Dad at the prom. Instead, 21st-century bad guys are suddenly robbing Civil War gold shipments with machine guns, manipulating the 1929 stock market for their own nefarious ends and snatching up what will one day become Beverly Hills "for chump change." Before you can say "wait a second," the government outlaws time travel and forms (what else?) another new federal agency--to police the past.

Just imagine the problems for poor Jean-Claude, who plays a timecop named Max Walker. Shuttling between current reality and a past where future facts can be altered, Max never quite knows who his friends are (aside from a cache of high-tech guns) or what time it is. Throw in the wild cards--a wife killed in 2004 (Mia Sara) but alive and lovely in 1994, a power-hungry U.S. senator (Ron Silver) and a supply of thugs who look like they're from Pluto--and you've got the package.

Mostly, though, you've got the beefy Van Damme kicking, slashing and shooting his way through the decades and an army of rogue fellow agents. Despite all his gizmos, special effects and derring-do, however, he's still a foot soldier in the movie-fantasy wars. Why? Same old tricks. Big Arnie's spot at the top remains safe.

Meantime, there are a couple of wonderful jokes in Timecop. Max winds up stalking himself in the rain, and when two versions of the villain collide in the same moment, the older one carps to the younger about his paunch: "Hey! Lay off the fuckin' candy bars." Then he kills an intruder: "Never interrupt me when I'm talking to myself," he warns.

Such bright moments are too few.

 
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