"Knock Off"--that's what TriStar would seem to be doing in opening this high-energy, high-spirited thriller Friday without press previews. The irony is that this is the kind of action adventure with real crossover appeal: It's fast, light and funny and not top-heavy with special effects and epic-scale destruction. It's a much tighter, far less outre film than Jean-Claude Van Damme and director Tsui Hark's last outing, "Double Team"--and no Dennis Rodman or Mickey Rourke on hand this time.
Indeed, "Knock Off" is one of Van Damme's best movies ever. What's more it has Sammo Hung, as much a Hong Kong legend as Tsui, on board as second unit director and Steven E. de Souza, who has "48 Hours" and "Die Hards" 1 and 2 among his credits, as writer of the film's lean, witty yet scary script.
Van Damme is well-cast as the free-spirited King of Hong Kong knockoffs. His partner (Rob Schneider) of four years has strived to get Van Damme to go legit in manufacturing jeans for a major U.S. company, whose no-nonsense rep (Lela Rochon) arrives to check out suspicions of counterfeiting. It seems that Van Damme's brother-by-adoption (Wyman Wong) not only has continued knocking off the jeans but also has been trading with the Russian Mafia in cheap transistor radios and toys, perfect items for concealing mini-bombs, as well as in jeans buttons. Nothing, and almost no one, is what or who he or she seems.
Opening 72 hours before Hong Kong is to be handed back to China by the British, "Knock Off," which was shot during the transfer, starts off with a zany rickshaw race held for charity and never really lets up. When it comes to action, Tsui, backed by Arthur Wong's breathtakingly mobile camera work, is the most kinetic of directors who never misses the comic potential in rough-and-tumble action.
Yet amid the nonstop mayhem there emerges the all-too-timely idea of how the world is becoming increasingly menaced by terrorist acts--and how Hong Kong's elaborate hand-over celebrations and ceremonies last year could well have been vulnerable to sabotage.
In Tsui's films actors have to be fast on their feet not only physically but also in establishing the characters and personalities of the people they are playing. Van Damme, Schneider and Rochon are exceptionally adept under Tsui's direction, as is Paul Sorvino, as a veteran CIA section chief. From his classic "Peking Opera Blues" to "A Better Tomorrow" and countless other films, Tsui expresses a well-developed sense of life's dark absurdities that subtly shadows even his zaniest moments.
* MPAA rating: R, for continuous violence and brief language. Times guidelines: standard action film/martial arts violence.
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Jean-Claude Van Damme: Marcus Ray
Rob Schneider: Tommy Hendricks
Lela Rochon: Karen
Paul Sorvino: Johansson
A TriStar Pictures release of a Knock Films, A.V.V., and MDP Worldwide presentation of a Film Workshop Company Ltd./Val D'Oro Entertainment production. Director Tsui Hark. Producer Nansun Shi. Screenplay by Steven E. de Souza. Cinematographer Arthur Wong. Editor Mak Chi Sin. Costumes Ben Luk, William Fung, Mable Kwan. Music Rona Mael and Russell Mael. Production designers James Leung and Bill Lui. Second unit director Sammo Hung. Action director Yuen Bing. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.