Imagine the future of . . . 2004. Leaving work, you climb into your automobile a huge, armored thing that looks uncannily like Ford Taurus with Rubbermaid storage containers glued to the exterior. Inside, you touch the CRT screen and it happily pilots you home. This is a good thing, because all that "armor" on the outside makes it impossible to see through the windshield. When you arrive home, you are greeted by messages on the bulky CRT monitors placed tastefully about your abode. Your e-mail box is stuffed full - six messages! You've been busy, though, with your work at the government agency that has been policing the use of time machines a technology that has been around for years now.
OK, so the makers of Timecop got a few things wrong. Cars today don't look that different from the vehicles being manufactured in the factories of 1994. Most folks would love to eliminate spam down to the point that they receive only six e-mail messages a day. Time travel is still the stuff of fantasy. To its credit, however, the film does feature a politician with no discernable skills who is convinced he can win the U.S. Presidential election so long as he has enough money to buy endless ads on TV.
"Ron Silver! I loved you in Timecop!"
Watching the movie is kind of like a trip back through time all by itself. We remember seeing it when it first came out, and it seemed like a pretty good movie. Sure, Jean-Claude Van Damme's acting and English enunciation had actually regressed in quality from Hard Target, but there was lots of action and a couple of special effects that were really neat. Timecop is the absolute zenith for Van Damme, since it's his top grossing movie by a large margin.
Ironically, however, time has not been kind to Timecop. The Jackie Chan revolution left the fight scenes in this movie looking woefully inadequate, and the special effects that looked so neat in 1994 are less than special today. Robbed of its few charms, our more modern attentions were turned to the movie's plot. This is where the fabric of Timecop's continuum begins to wear thin. So to speak.
"I hope my husband is being played
by that dreamy Matthew Broderick."
In 1994 Max Walker (Van Damme) is a D.C. cop married to Melissa (Mia Sara). One night Melissa is killed by mysterious heavily armed assailants and Walker is left for dead. Walker recovers and ten years later he's working for a secret government agency that polices the use of time travel. There are two examples of time travel crime in early in the movie. We see a man with high-tech machine guns steal gold from the Confederate army during the Civil War, and we see another guy (Walker's former partner) choosing cheap stocks to buy during 1929 stock market crash using a 2004 copy of USA Today. It is Walker's job to intercept people like this and kung fu kick them a few times to force them to return to 2004, where they are tried and sentenced to death.
The process of time travel in this movie requires some explanation. You can only travel backwards in time from the time machine, though you can return to your point of origin. The machine itself is a pod on a track that shoots forward through the arch which actually causes the time travel. This is apparently a very complicated process because they make a big deal about monitoring the travelers for stress. Maybe the time travelers wouldn't be so jumpy if there weren't a completely gratuitous wall right behind the target arch, guaranteeing that the travelers will die if the arch doesn't function. (There are even a pair of blood stains on the wall!)
"Launch Colonial Vipers!"
When the travelers appear in their target time they just walk out of thin air accompanied by a weird "rubber air" effect. When they return to the present they just disappear from the past and reappear in the pod, which is now going the other way on the track. We'd really love to know how people get in and out of that pod, because they don't seem to do it in either time period.
Walker is assigned by his boss Matuzak (Bruce McGill) to figure out why so many illegal time travelers are going back with a pure profit motive apparently not their own. Walker discovers that they're being sent back by Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), a presidential candidate who wants more money to run TV commercials. You would think that, considering how complicated time travel is, the first thing you'd do is look for who else has a time travel rig in the present. It doesn't seem like the kind of thing you could easily hide, but that strategy never occurs to this government agency.
Setting this movie extensively in the future of 2004 would be expensive, what with all those sets to dress and cars to glue crap on, so it probably isn't that surprising that most of the movie takes place in 1994. When McComb realizes that Walker is on his trail he goes back to 1994 and tries to use hired goons to kill Walker and any of his other enemies in that time frame so they can't pester him in the future. He also gives his younger self advice, which is a little risky. In this version of time travel "the same matter can't occupy the same place at the same time," a rule that apparently applies only to people who touch themselves. No, not like that. If you make physical contact with your earlier self you morph together into a bad computer effect, followed by some particularly icky latex makeup. Now, we could nitpick and point out that two things that are touching aren't in the same place, or that's it's very unlikely that any single atom in your skin is likely to be there ten years later. That would cut down on the computer effects and twist endings, though, and we can't have that.
"Talk to the foot."
Other time travel paradoxes are handled in a manner that is similarly ham-fisted. McComb's diddling with himself in 1994 the past changes things in 2004. Every time Walker goes back there the status of the agency becomes direr, yet only Walker remembers the way things used to be. This brings up the rather thorny question of how the agency knows what past it is they're trying to defend in the first place. Just to make things that much more illogical, the older McComb takes a nihilist attitude towards being trapped in a house with a bomb, saying, "we are all going to be dead and my younger self is still going to be president." Um, wouldn't his younger self do all the things his older did, including dying in an exploding house before becoming president? If not, how will his younger self get to this point, if he doesn't have the help of his older self? Repeat this train of thought three times, or until your head explodes.
Of course, this being a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, it all comes down to a series of chases and fights. As mentioned above, the fights now look kind of anemic, not only because modern wireworks and CGI have seriously raised the bar on fight scenes, but also because the influx of Hong Kong martial arts choreographers has set even minor sparring matches in the movies at a pace that would be challenging for meth-fueled jackrabbits. Van Damme's fighting style, alternately, is centered on flashy roundhouse kicks and slower, more brutal moves. This was entertaining enough in its day, but these days it can't help but suffer by comparison no matter how long he can stand on one foot. If only he could travel back in time and make a better movie. If only we could travel back in time and warn ourselves not to rent this one.
Yeah, like we'd listen.
This review is part of a balanced B-Masters Roundtable Review.