Over the past five years, action star Jean-Claude Van Damme has become one of America's leading importers of foreign talent. In 1993 he hired Hong Kong action ace John Woo to direct Hard Target. For last year's Maximum Risk, he brought over Ringo Lam. And now he has used a third Hong Kong director, Tsui Hark, for his latest, Double Team.
Action fans who have gone berserk over Hong Kong cinema will recognize him not merely as one of the country's leading directors but as an insanely prolific director/producer/writer/actor whose filmography includes perhaps half of the most distinguished films of the Hong Kong New Wave. Tsui Hark--and that's Mr. Tsui, not Mr. Hark, to those of you who get flummoxed by Chinese nomenclature--produced Woo's two biggest breakthroughs, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, as well as the Swordsman and Chinese Ghost Story series, Wicked City, Dragon Inn, and myriad others. He directed the first three Once Upon a Time in China entries (which made a star of Jet Li), The Chinese Feast, and--not only my favorite Hong Kong film ever but also one of the best movies made by anyone in the past two decades--Peking Opera Blues.
Van Damme movies have become a rite of passage for Hong Kong directors looking to work in Hollywood. On one level, it's a win-win situation: He has the clout to get them studio approval, and they bring him a fresh style and a certain critical cachet. The downside is that the directors are relatively powerless and at the mercy of the reportedly egotistical star and his producers.
Certainly, Tsui had minimal input in the script for Double Team, which is ragged even by Hong Kong's generally haphazard standards. Van Damme plays Jack Paul Quinn, a top American anti-terrorist agent. Recruited for one final mission, he tries to ambush terrorist mastermind Stavros (Mickey Rourke) in an amusement park; Quinn fails, but somehow Stavros's son is killed. Because Quinn's wife (Natacha Lindinger) is pregnant, Stavros swears revenge on Quinn's unborn child.
Knocked out by an explosion during the mission, Quinn wakes up at the Colony, a high-tech prison for secret agents who--according to the Colony's guides--are "too valuable to kill, too dangerous to set free." While quartered there under the highest security, the agents are forced to act as anti-terrorist consultants. When Quinn discovers that Stavros has effectively gained control over his wife (who has been told that her husband is dead), he must escape the inescapable facility and rescue her. His only ally is a flamboyant weapons-and-technology genius named Yaz (Dennis Rodman).
The script is a mishmash of elements from James Bond, earlier Van Damme flicks and, most notably, Patrick McGoohan's beloved TV show The Prisoner. The concept of the Colony is no more than The Prisoner's Village with fancier special effects. The difference is that The Prisoner was surreal and metaphorical--it wasn't so important that the whole idea made no realistic sense. But in the context of a straight-out thriller, the ludicrousness of the concept--and much of the plot--is far more troubling.
Still, it would be a mistake to suggest that Tsui is going for standard-issue action fare here. Double Team is, in fact, often stylistically strange to the point of confusion. During the first third, in particular, there's minimal dialogue and lots of subjective visual razzle-dazzle: stop-motion, Vertigo track-zoom shots, trick dissolves and constant tilted shots. The amusement-park scene verges on the avant-garde--which is why it's not quite clear how the hell the action moves to a maternity ward. Is this a flashback or a fantasy? Could this actually be a combination hospital/ amusement park?
The fancy camera work--Tsui was able to bring ace Hong Kong cinematographer Peter Pau (Bride With White Hair) with him--is always interesting, and often irritating. For much of the film, Double Team seems to bear the same relation to contemporary action films that Arthur Penn's Mickey One bore to crime films--genre conventions filtered through a surreal, even pretentious, lens.
The relative lack of dialogue has a secondary advantage: It makes Van Damme look like a better actor. Here he gets to convey almost everything through his face and body, with which he is more adept than his voice. (This is not meant as a putdown.)
Consequently, Rodman gets all the best lines. The Chicago Bulls star is essentially playing himself, which is fair enough in his first major part (although the occasional basketball references, while always getting a chuckle, violate the film's sense of reality). But his delivery needs work, at least on the level of elocution: When he delivers a line quickly, it's often tough to understand, and he mangles a few punchlines.
It's nice to see Rourke, no slouch in the mumbling department himself, back in supporting roles, which have always elicited his best work. Still, it's impossible not to point out how much weirder the guy looks every year. He still has the puffy, sandblasted face he first displayed in Wild Orchid, but now it's perched atop a body so highly pumped up that the combo looks like a bad special effect--like Charlie Sheen's fake musculature in the ads for Hot Shots, Part Deux.
The many plot holes suggest significant post-production cutting. (Another hint is that only about twenty minutes' worth takes place at the agents' prison, even though the film was originally titled The Colony.) Lots of the action scenes are inadequately set up; you lose half the punch of blowing up the Colosseum if you don't first establish that it is the Colosseum. And why the hell are the catacombs at the Colosseum filled with soda machines? Surely this bizarre bit of product placement could have been established with a joke.
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But this is an action film, and the action scenes are well-done. Tsui got to use some of his familiar Hong Kong crew on parts of Double Team, and you have to wish he had used them even more. American Charles Picerni is action-sequence choreographer and stunt coordinator, but the credits also list the great Samo Hung as special action choreographer and Xin Xin Xiong (who played the character Clubfoot in several of the Once Upon a Time in China films) as action choreographer. (The production notes claim that Samo's buddy Jackie Chan showed up for a visit and also helped out.)
It's tough to be sure just who did what. A lot of the fancy camera work in the amusement park resembles Samo's stuff. But the one sequence I'll bet a week's pay was staged by these Hong Kong masters is also the most exciting in the whole movie: In the middle of a big, pretty good shootout scene, the film suddenly shifts into overdrive when Quinn is attacked by a bald Chinese assassin (the aforementioned Xin Xin Xiong). For just a minute or two, we get a taste of the sort of punched-up, thrilling fight-staging that is practically commonplace in Hong Kong movies. It's such a transcendent moment that you wonder why Tsui didn't shoot the whole film that way.
Screenplay by Don Jakoby and Paul Mones, from a story by Don Jakoby. Directed by Tsui Hark. With Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, Mickey Rourke, Paul Freeman, Natacha Lindinger and Valeria Cavalli.