By Stephanie Zacharek
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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--and, to those of you who haven't, five quick words: Get . . . with . . . the . . . effin' . . . program--will recognize him not merely as one of H.K.'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 more. 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 H.K. 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: Van Damme has the clout to get them studio approval, and they bring him a fresh style as well as a certain critical cachet. The downside of all this is that they 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 H.K.'s generally haphazard standards. Van Damme plays Jack Paul Quinn, a top American antiterrorist agent. Recruited for one final mission, he tries to ambush terrorist mastermind Stavros (Mickey Rourke) in an amusement park; Quinn fails, but somehow (and for reasons we'll go into later, somehow is as specific as one can get) Stavros' 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, they are forced to act as antiterrorist 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 to rescue her. His only ally is a flamboyant weapons and technology genius named Yaz (Dennis Rodman).
The script is no great shakes: 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 of 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, as noted above, 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 camerawork--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.)
As a consequence, Rodman gets all the best lines. The Chicago Bulls star is essentially playing himself--and the occasional basketball references violate the film's sense of reality, while always getting a chuckle--which is fair enough in his first major part. But his delivery needs work, at least on the level of elocution: When he delivers a line fast, it's often tough to understand; he mangles a few punch lines.
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.
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