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If you are a die-hard fan of action cinema, you definitely had an action hero you watched religiously throughout your youth. For most, it was Bruce Lee, Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger and understandably so, as Lee, Stallone and Schwarzenegger created timeless classics in the action genre and were the epitome of ‘badass’. But for me, my action hero growing up was none other than The Muscles From Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Cyborg, even Double Team. The man was an action juggernaut who sculpted his entire career on slow motion roundhouse kicks, doing the splits far more than is necessary and his uncanny ability to make even the smallest of contacts look like he drove a fork-lift through someone’s face.
So, 25 years on and one of Van Damme’s more substance heavy movies is about to undergo its newest milestone anniversary. That absolute diamond in the rough is Peter Hyams’ Timecop. So, what better time to analyse this underappreciated cult classic than now?
Timecop follows TEC (Time Enforcement Commission) Police Officer, Max Walker (Van Damme) as he battles with the loss of a loved one, the discovery of time travel, a long list of plot holes and inconsistencies that even the time travel couldn’t fix and some nasty individuals who want to use time travel as a means of power and wealth thus causing more inconsistencies and plot holes surrounding time travel. If you feel just as confused reading that as I was typing it, we are on the right path here. It’s messy stuff to say the least but goddamn is it entertaining.
Timecop is the very definition of a 90’s action movie. JCVD spews forth one-liners that would make even the most pessimistic cinema goer break a smile and chuckle uncontrollably. The fetish for roundhouse kicks are back of course and they look spectacular as always with JCVD sporting an impressive mullet hairstyle that sways seductively every time he lifts that leg up and spins. The vision of the future is cars that look like someone pasted the Millennium Falcon over a BMW in Microsoft Paint and early on, we are even treated to a Careless Whisper-esque passionate montage of flexing ass cheeks and lots of sweat dripping down backs that wouldn’t feel out of place in a MacGruber sequel. If that’s not 90’s cinema, I don’t know what is.
One of the strongest elements of 90’s cinema was its admirable ability to charm its viewers into forgetting its faults with the promise of cheesy, over-the-top, popcorn entertainment and Timecop is a perfect example of this. For every scene focusing on time travel and the consequences of disrupting timelines, it’s countered by JCVD freezing arms and spouting, ‘Have a nice day’, before relieving baddies of their all-important body parts. We are even treated to a glorious scene halfway through Timecop’s runtime where JCVD jumps up from a kitchen floor and does the splits on a kitchen counter to prevent himself from dying at the hands of water and electricity. It is probably the most glorious and ridiculous moment of Van Damme’s career but it is truly unforgettable in the best way imaginable.
With regards to how Timecop’s plot develops, it is standard run of the mill stuff. Just like any other action movie from the 90’s and especially from JCVD’s filmography, we have an important character in our protagonist’s life kicking the bucket early and our grieving protagonist takes it upon themselves to become a beacon of light for humanity and get sweet revenge on those who wronged him. In fact, that general plotline of revenge for a loved one occupies at least 13 of Van Damme’s movies (I counted I swear). If you are expecting to see something different plot wise from this JCVD movie, you are unfortunately out of luck.
Keeping this in mind, JCVD gives one of his better acting performances with his role in Timecop and even manages to do something he rarely had done before, develop as a character. It may not be a huge development but it certainly offers more than the likes of Cyborg or Hard Target offered in character development.
Walker starts out as an extremely caring but naïve police officer who suffers at the hands of evil. Fast forward a couple of years and Walker has become more of a hard boiled cop intent on carrying out his duties while living a secluded lifestyle away from those around him that care for his well-being. This all eventually progresses and culminates in a scene between Walker and his lover, Melissa (Mia Sara) in a local mall they used to frequent together. From his brief meeting with Melissa, Walker quickly understands that he cannot simply forget everything that happened and that he has an opportunity to fix what has been broken. Walker then takes this opportunity and will do whatever it takes without hesitation.
By its conclusion, Walker has matured from his early naïve beginnings into a family man who values what is most important in his life. It isn’t hard to see why critics praised Timecop as one of JCVD’s strongest performances to date at release because he gives a different kind of performance than what his catalogue would usually suggest even if the general idea has been recreated numerous times throughout JCVD’s lifetime as an actor.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Van Damme movie without an epic final showdown, with some villainous thugs, in the rain. I’ve always wondered did Van Damme ever negotiate with his directors and say, ‘You know what would be cool? Lots of roundhouse kicks and rain’ because if you go through his filmography you are guaranteed to find a lot of final showdowns in the rain.
The final showdowns are always entertaining in Van Damme’s movies and Timecop is no different. For a large majority of Timecop’s run time, action can be quite absent in favour of a confusing plot but the final showdown is where it’s at. Yes, it gets a bit confusing by its end and it also contains one of the worst CGI uses ever in film history but you have got to give credit where credit is due, Van Damme looks slick as hell fighting people in the rain and stopping villains from blowing stuff up. Even among all the clichés and tropes, Timecop just ends up being entertaining viewing.
The truth is, Timecop is not a great movie by any means but it has undeniable nostalgic charm and is a superb characterisation of what 90’s action cinema was. Nowadays, action is completely different with an emphasis on pushing the boundaries of stunts and combat and has lost a lot of that cheesy charm the 80’s and 90’s had going for it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but damn do I miss movies like Timecop. Timecop’s status as a cult classic, however mediocre and cheesy it may be, is very much warranted. JCVD, we salute you.