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Timecop (1994)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

TIMECOP (1994)

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ron Silver, Mia Sara, Bruce McGill, Gloria Reuben, Scott Bellis

Written By: Mark Verheiden (also story), Mike Richardson (story) Directed By: Peter Hyams

The Short Version

Jean-Claude Van Damme headlines  a sci fi flick with wide appeal.

Sure, the science is bad, and the effects are so very 90s…

…but there is a lot of fun to be had here.  And several epic splits.

An easy-to-hate villain makes the story that much more effective.

This should have been a franchise.  Timecop is worth your time.

The Long Version

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You walk into a bar in 1994, and there’s that jowly dog staring at you with a face of red neon, demanding that you drink his beer.

“Elections are won with television.  You don’t need the press.  You don’t need endorsements.  You don’t even need the truth.  You need money.”

Ah, the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Back during the Golden Age of Action movies, “The Muscles From Brussels” was easily one the of the most affable, screen-charismatic members of the superstar pantheon.  With his signature action style, good looks, and ready smile, one could easily imagine him slipping into a franchise role and making a comfortable living from an infinite number of spin-offs and sequels.  And if any of Van Damme’s films begged to become a Hollywood franchise, it was Timecop.

Alas, the studio didn’t bite, and Van Damme’s next several films proved to be an unfortunate mix of box office and/or critical failures.  His star fell hard, and when someone finally did decide to exploit the Timecop title for a direct to video sequel nine years later, he didn’t make the cast list.  It’s a shame, really, because both Van Damme and Timecop deserved better.

Based on a (very) short run comic from Dark Horse, Timecop kicks off in the then-present day of 1994.  Time travel has been discovered, and the United States government wants to make sure that no one tries to change history by messing with the past.  To that end, the Time Enforcement Commission – the TEC – is formed.  Initially staffed by cops recruited from the Washington, DC Police Department, it’s the job of the TEC to ferret out attempts to alter the timeline and bring the miscreants responsible to justice.  As it so happens, Officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Double Impact) decides to accept the job offer just hours before his wife, Melissa (Mia Sara, Legend), is murdered by a mysterious group of thugs who also decide to blow up his house for good measure.

Flash forward ten years to the then-future of 2004.  Agent Walker is the star of the service, and he’s just found out that the Senator in charge of overseeing the TEC, Aaron McComb (Ron Silver, The Arrival), is making illegal forays into the past to find cash for his Presidential campaign, and conspiring to cover his tracks by having the TEC shut down while he’s at it.  Can Walker take down the Senator before he finds not just his job but his very existence erased, and can he maybe, just maybe, save his wife’s life in the process?  Don’t think too hard now…

I mean it.  Don’t think too hard.  If you do, you might start wondering why people can only travel to the past and not to the future even though science says it’s the other way around, and there’s just no profit to be made from that kind of nonsense.  It’s a sci fi action flick.  Just kick back and enjoy.

There is, after all, plenty to be enjoyed here.  The story is pure formula and leans on plenty of tropes, but it’s straightforward and it plays well.  The action scenes are entertaining, ranging from “pure fun” to “truly tense.”  The direction and the cinematography are both in the capable hands of Peter Hyams (Outland), so there are definitely no complaints to be had there.  And then there’s the cast.

Start with headliner Van Damme, for whom Timecop definitely stands as one for the highlight reel.  Physically, he’s at the top of his game, delivering the goods with outstanding high kicks, a super cool knife fight, and several demonstrations of his signature splits (including the single most iconic occurrence thereof in his entire career).  In terms of acting, he holds his own, playing things a bit less happy-go-lucky than usual, but still displaying lots of charisma even during those moments when he’s waxing melancholic.  This is a flick that allows Van Damme to reach an audience beyond the standard action junkies, and he makes the most of the opportunity… which makes it all the more unfortunate that nothing ever came of it.

Standing opposite Van Damme in the villain’s role is Ron Silver, who does an extremely effective job of making the audience hate the character he’s portraying.  He plays the all-too-realistic political sleazebag stereotype to the hilt, oozing heartless arrogance at every turn in a way that speaks to a major command of craft.  Silver’s performance easily makes up for the fact that he’s playing a villain who has to leave the fighting to his henchmen; that evil persona makes for just as satisfying a final confrontation as an old-fashioned martial arts duel would have been.

Since Timecop is an action flick that leans on tropes, of course there’s a damsel in distress, and Mia Sara does solid work in what could easily have been a thankless role in other hands.  She plays past the stereotype and turns Melissa Walker into a more genuine character than the script alone would seem to allow (though it does throw the credible bone of not making her completely defenseless), playing up both sympathy and strength and showing some fair chemistry with Jean-Claude Van Damme.  Complaints?  None.

Finally, there’s the movie’s standout second stringer, Bruce McGill (one of those actors who’s been in so many things – like, say, Exit Wounds – as to be instantly recognizable, even if most of the audience doesn’t actually know his name), as the not-quite-grizzled agency chief who gets to try to keep his top cop (and best friend… of course) in check.  McGill’s screen charisma complements Van Damme’s exceptionally well (it’s easy to picture these two as longtime friends), and even makes up for some of those absent smiles that savvy audiences might otherwise be missing from their favorite hero.  Indeed, with said hero’s habit of time trotting, it’s McGill’s character who really serves to keep Timecop grounded and mark the pace of just where “reality” stands at any given moment.

Sure, the “reality” of the movie’s take on 2004 didn’t exactly happen – I don’t remember the self-drive cars operating on voice command during my 2004, anyway; nor the time travel, for that matter – but that’s par for the sci fi course, isn’t it?  And while the 90s-grade visual effects definitely stand out to modern eyes (especially in high definition), they still hold up well enough as to avoid being a distraction; indeed, they’re not at all bad for the era or the budget.

And then there’s the apartment fight with the knives and the splits and the taser.  Even if there was nothing else to recommend about Timecop, that scene alone would be worth the whole hundred minutes.

Bottom line, Timecop stands as one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s most accessible movies, and a solid bit of sci fi action overall that begs to be the start of a franchise.  Alas, that never happened, but the movie does now live inexplicably on many a video retailer’s cheap shelf, and it’s definitely worth picking up as a budget buy for the permanent collection.  (Who knows?  You might even get a copy of Bloodsport as part of the deal.)

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2014

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