Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, May 21, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Double Team (1997)

By 1997, Jean-Claude Van Damme was basically a pop culture punchline. His movies weren’t exactly loosing money at the box office but the profit margin was growing smaller with each new release. A decade of bad reviews and – perhaps more importantly – changing public taste concerning the action genre had taken its toll. “Double Team” would combine the action star with Dennis Rodman, another flamboyant icon of nineties cheese. The film received the most toxic reviews of Van Damme’s career, won three Razzies, and did meager business at the box office. In the nineteen years since its release, “Double Team” has acquired a reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good classic. Is this status deserved?

Government agent Jack Quinn has stepped away from the anti-terrorism business. While enjoying retirement with his pregnant wife, he is drawn back for One Last Mission. Madman-for-hire Stavros, an old enemy of Jack’s, has reemerged. Naturally, the mission goes horribly wrong, ending with Stavros’ son being killed. Afterwards, Jack is declared dead by the government and held hostage on an island for decommissioned spies. During his incarceration, Stavros kidnaps Jack’s wife, her delivery date growing closer and closer. After a daring escape, Jack partners with Yaz, an eccentric weapons dealer he previously meet. The two worked together to rescue his wife and stop the bad guy.

Whether or not you consider “Double Team” so bad it’s good depends on your definition of both “bad” and “good.” After successfully bringing John Woo to Hollywood, Van Damme teamed with another Hong Kong filmmaker. But Tsui Hark is a far more eccentric talent then Woo. “Double Team” is completely bonkers, in the way a lot of Hong Kong cinema gleefully is. The film plays less like a mainstream blockbuster and more like an Italian James Bond rip-off from the sixties. To that already kooky pot, it adds elements of a kung-fu movie, a buddy cop flick, a revenge storyline, and about fifty basketball puns. The resulting stew is so goofy, so wildly excessive in conception and divergent in tone, that it couldn’t have been anything but a box office failure and a cult favorite.

Take, for example, the action sequences. The film begins with Van Damme driving some sort of armored truck up a non-existent ramp and through a train car. The first proper action scene is a shoot-out in an amusement park. The machine gun fire takes out a clown, foam cartoon mascots, a popcorn machine, and a girl in a chicken mask. Van Damme leaps from an exploding neon sign and break dances around some bullets. Van Damme and Mickey Rourke fight through a hospital, the hero repeatedly pushing a baby out of the chaos while face-kicking his opponent. By the end of the movie, he kicks a tiger in the head. In a bizarre bit of product placement, a Coca-Cola machine is used to shield the good guys from a massive, CGI fireball that destroys the Colosseum. Yet this is not the peak of “Double Team’s” absurdity. That occurs when an assassin throws his shoes at Van Damme and attempts to stab him with a switchblade held between his toes. Why his toes? Why not! Despite the utter insanity, Tsui Hark directs each scene with a kinetic, energetic style. “Double Team” is gloriously mad but never unfocused.

Aside from the toe-assisted knife-wielding, my favorite part of “Double Team” is a bizarre plot stop-off at the start of the second act. After failing to stop Stavros and being shot in the back, Jack wakes up on a strange island. There, former spies – declared dead by their governments – are held so that their skills and secrets can be used on future cases. The ocean around the island is guarded by underwater laser arrays. Before curfew, each spy must press their fingerprint to a panel to prevent suicide gas from being released. There are no murderous balloons or stylish cardigans but this still appears to be a reference to surreal spy cult classic, “The Prisoner.” Of course, Van Damme and Patrick McGoonen have slightly different responses to captivity. Van Damme trains inside his hut, wrestling his bathtub, holding his breathe for longer periods each day, and performing upside down crunches in the doorway. His escape is no less ridiculous, as he pushes a guy into the lasers and dangles outside a cargo plane. It’s amazing.

By casting Dennis Rodman in a lead role, “Double Team” was setting itself up for critical ridicule. Audiences are always hostile when notorious figures from one panel of pop culture foolhardily attempt to cross over into another. (See also: Carrey, Mariah. Hilton, Paris.) Rodman’s acting is frequently stiff, as he chokes out his lines in an incredulous monotone. His dialogue mostly being composed of basketball puns, crude double entendres, and quips about his ridiculous inventions doesn’t help any. Rodman is pretty terrible but his flamboyant style adds to “Double Team’s” campy appeal. The character’s base is a gay leather bar, which he sells giant guns out of. Rodman’s outrageous style, bizarre hair-cuts, and nebulous sexuality seem attuned with the film’s insane content. And this is before he tosses an exploding coin, leaps out of an airplane inside an inflatable balloon, and grabs a baby while driving a motorcycle through the Colosseum.

Van Damme’s star was fading. The public’s patience for Denis Rodman was waning. “Double Team” further stacked the deck against itself by casting Mickey Rourke as the villain. Rourke was officially washed up by 1997. Determined to match Van Damme’s martial art skills, Rourke underwent a heavy training regiment. He displays this during the climatic show-down, where he shows off his toned, glistening pecs and jump kicks. (Weirdly, Jean-Claude keeps his shirt on.) Rourke fluctuates between acting like a sleazy, snake-lipped conman and a monosyllabic psychopath. His grudge against Jack Quinn is personal but the film doesn’t do a good job of illustrating this. Adding another weird layer to “Double Team” is the theme of fatherhood. Quinn indirectly killed Stavros’ son, so he kidnaps Quinn’s unborn child. What relation does this concept have with the film’s kooky spy story and high-kicking action? Not much.

In addition to everything else, there’s also a scene where Van Damme dresses up like a goth teenager. That “Double Team” received a harsh greeting from critics and the public isn’t a shock. The script is a total mess and the execution is completely ridiculous. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t fun. In fact, “Double Team” is a blast from beginning to end. Put yourself on the film’s outrageous wavelength and you might have a good time with it too. [8/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 5 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt*
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

*He fights a bathtub. I’m counting it.

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