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Double Team

JCVD, Tsui Hark and Dennis Rodman combine vices of Hollywood, HK cinema and celeb culture for an entertainingly bad yarn…

In retrospect, one of the oddest odd couples in cinema was that from the marriage between Hollywood and Hong Kong through most of the 1990s and early 00s. It was very much a marriage of convenience: Hong Kong was clearly just interested in Hollywood for his money. Some of her children openly said so (Jackie Chan admitted to not liking many of his American movies, but he got paid more for even the middling projects there than most of his biggest blockbusters from Hong Kong; the same applied to John Woo whose two US blockbusters made more money than his entire HK output combined). And for his part, all Hollywood thought HK was really good for was her “action” (whether via the stars she imported or the directors — which is why almost every single major project they were called for was an action flick). But it was good; to the point that Hollywood thought HK could even teach him some things about making it better.

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Actually, there was one more outside but unstated major factor; one was nervous about having to return to her original parents’ home after being separated for so long if she couldn’t find a partner elsewhere to support her. Thus the period saw a bizarre but brief mass exodus of many of HK’s most popular directors, to the point that it’s easier to list who didn’t run off than who did. Basically, all A-list modern action film directors made the trip except Johnnie To, Andrew Lau and Benny Chan; and even a few B and C-list ones for a minute like Kirk Wong. Stanley Tong was the only one who wasn’t called for an action film, to extra-disastrous results (Mr. Magoo — though he also did TV’s Martial Law to compensate for that). There was a somewhat similar but more complicated, on-and-off successful exodus with performers, including all four of the period’s biggest action stars: Jackie Chan (for a second, far more successful time), Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh (with Donnie Yen the only top fiver who didn’t go).

Beyond the others, there was one more big problem in the relationship: Hollywood was very controlling. He seldom allowed HK to have any real degree of independence or even bothered listening to her input much of the time. So the marriage had its ups (Face/Off, Rush Hour 2) and unfortunately more frequent, more pronounced downs, but most often it was just disappointingly humdrum and marked by a lack of understanding and chemistry. Thus, it all led to a rather quick divorce and funny footnote in film history; but not an altogether forgettable or regrettable one. Many of the results at least teased a fascinating clash of cultures, styles and ideas — but in ways that usually made the couple’s incompatibility past the surface even more apparent.

On paper, one of the absolute highlights of that marriage should have been the visit from Tsui Hark. A fluent English speaker having studied film at the University of Texas, Tsui had a better foothold in the industry and no communication problems that other HK migrants had at all. He also had more experience both working with and trying to emulate Hollywood than any of his colleagues, having called Hollywood SFX and technical figures for films like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, and making consistent efforts to push the boundaries of SFX and imagination locally. Instead, his visit ended up being one of the most tumultuous and disastrous phases of all, with some regarding his Hollywood debut, Double Team, as the worst of all Hollywood-HK collaborations (with his follow-up Knock-Off not faring any better critically), and Tsui himself speaking less-than-fondly about the experience. But was it really that bad? Well, both yes and no….

Quinn (Jean Claude Van Damme) was the most respected and formidable anti-terrorism operative in the spy agency S.O.M.E.T.H.I.N.G. (i.e. the movie makes it a point to stay vague about who, what, where or why exactly the spy agency is, which gives the desired leeway to throw the story all over the place). But Quinn called it quits after his most spectacular mission against the world’s most feared mercenary-terrorist, Stavros (Mickey Rourke), when he stopped a stolen shipment of materials for weapons of mass destruction that was set to be “sold to the Iraqis” (but apparently thanks to Quinn, that shipment was never found there either).

Now just wanting to live the good life in his French poolside luxury home with his lovely, pregnant wife (French actress Natacha Lindinger), not even the unannounced personal visit of an agent/old buddy — who urgently warns him Stavros is on the move again and only he could stop him — could change Quinn’s mind anymore. What does ultimately change his mind, however, is finding Stavros has viciously eliminated that very agent shortly after his visit. Back on the hunt, Quinn is to swing by Antwerp (an almost-homecoming for the Brussels-born actor) to hook up with and lead a Delta team to take down Stavros. But on the way, he swings by the LGBTQ strip club/tattoo parlor to see Yazzoo (Dennis Rodman).

One heck of a spot, it doesn’t just offer tattoos, clubbing and exotic scuba dancing, but for those who have the right connections (like one of his best customers, Quinn), Yaz offers the most specialized and expensive services: illegal hi-tech arms. As Quinn doesn’t have the cash at hand however, getting the kind of firepower he wants may be a serious issue and source of friction with Yaz. And once Quinn finally does get sight of Stavros at an amusement park, the botched mission triggers a chain of events that leaves him facing all kinds of worries. There’s Stavros now hellbent on destroying everything he holds dear! Yaz demanding his damn money! Tigers! Babies! Spy penal colonies! “Cybermonks”! Underwater lasers!

JCVD definitely gets credit as the main matchmaker for bringing Hollywood and HK together, which was also why they called on him to lead the majority of their functions over the years. In fact, he was a pioneer of modern HK director crossover projects (which greatly helped him in turn as well), as long before it even got in style from the mid-90s, pre-stardom JCVD did 1986’s No Retreat, No Surrender with Corey Yuen (who’d way later choreograph nearly all of Jet Li’s Hollywood movies). Additionally, JCVD’s package of skills in martial arts, action acrobatics and stunts already fit in well enough with the HK action formula, and it further helped that he was cheaper than the other big action stars with similar abilities (except Steven Seagal, but thankfully he didn’t end up the one as even JCVD is an exceptional actor in comparison).

As usual — but to an even greater extent with action showman Tsui — there doesn’t seem to be anything JCVD can’t do here: he jumps a good 30 feet off a bridge then runs on without pause; he shows pure genius escape artistry involving empty cans, discarded cigarettes and self-torn flesh; and most impressively, he slips on a Coca-Cola can while fighting goons, but transforms that slip midair into a whirling kick! Gravity is no more a match for him than guns are.

His partner grabbed yet more attention. The public at large barely even noticed or cared Rodman was one of the greatest defensive players of all time; defence is boring. So he would only become a household name late in his career in the mid-90s by very different means: when he started to enter seemingly every new game with increasing amounts of piercings, tattoos and wild hair dyes; crassly cursing out other players/teams/coaches and getting ejected from game after game for technical fouls and fights; headbutting referees and kicking cameramen (things a league wouldn’t have even tolerated if done by anyone who was more expendable); giving absurdly frank and lurid accounts of his sex life including with Madonna and Carmen Electra (in their legendary 10-day marriage); and pulling various outlandish public stunts like wearing a wedding dress to marry himself.

That way, Rodman became the total package and poster child of what the “attitude”-defined late 1990s public was craving, where notoriety and the manufacture of spectacle became the best ticket to superstardom. While JCVD could do everything in his movies, before long, there didn’t seem to be anything the public didn’t want to see Rodman doing outside his field: hosting an early reality show; writing a book; recording an album duet with house-pop legend Crystal Waters (“Just a Freak” — also used as this movie’s end theme); wrestling alongside Hulk Hogan in the NWO; and thus inevitably, starring in a movie. Truth be told, Rodman was far from excelling at any of those things; but the attitude, rebelliousness and universal strength of his image compensated for all technical deficiencies.

There was no doubt that notoriety inspired his casting here, right down to the movie poster’s slogan, “THEY DON’T PLAY BY THE RULES.”  But that didn’t just apply to Rodman and to a lesser extent, JCVD. HK cinema itself had already garnered an unhinged and rebellious bad boy-idolizing reputation; and Tsui arguably played the biggest overall role in it by helping launch the New Wave, producing many of its biggest and edgiest hits and managing to get a film banned in 1980s HK (no small feat). So the whole project seemed to be driven by its idea — the teaming of three flamboyant, rebellious personalities — far more than its actual content. And even for only having the third most important role in the movie, when noting how specific and distinctly characteristic much of Rodman’s dialogue is (and a number of bits built around his tattoos, piercings etc.) he may well have had more creative freedom with this than the director!

Ironically and unfortunately, the only ways Tsui managed to truly capture the spirit of HK cinema here was with a few of its most unwelcome tendencies. One problem is with tone balance; despite this movie’s usually lighthearted and occasionally tongue-in-cheek mood, a child’s bloodied dead body is shown and civilians are mowed down in the street in between asinine banter and basketball cracks. Another such vice is undisciplined wild energy; even some of the movie’s basic physics are utterly illogical and show continuity goofs (characters somehow teleporting to different sides of a taxi during a fight, and a machine gun shooting in places it couldn’t possibly reach from where its user is).

I had never known JCVD was also a master b-boy! But he breaks his way through machine-gun fire all while holding his gun, aiming and shooting someone on the ending split.

While it’s true that even during his HK career Tsui was already no stranger to not making sense, his HK movies made up for that with a diligently imbued sense of imagination and assurance and/or appropriately wild fantasy genres for it. One more problem that happens with both industries but goes beyond the usual scale of either here is the grotesquely shameless product placement; Coca-Cola prominently features in four scenes, including two where it directly saves the heroes’ lives.

Nevertheless, Tsui does about the best he can with this, frequently adding energy and flash with offbeat shots, fast-moving action and showy sets. And he has good fun (if sometimes a little too much) with the violence. In the only true Hong Kongesque fight scene in an amusement park, much of the killing takes place in the middle of groups of clowns (or to the clowns when they get in the bloody way), dolls/stuffed animals and amusement machines (one fun-loving criminal blasts his automatic below as he swings on a pendulum ride). And just as much as JCVD’s physical prowess, Tsui fully embraces the potential cheese factor, including on a house arrest makeshift workout scene (his “bathtub workout” may be my favourite part). Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t always keep aware of its limits (or tone, or characters….), trying harder than it should bother to give some kind of stinging political commentary.

Then again, how much could anyone do with this plot and script? And where to even start with it? How about plainly awful dialogue like, “With this, I can shoot the dick off a hummingbird”? Or maybe what-the-hell exchanges like where Quinn says, “[I heard] you died in Lebanon”, to which he’s “corrected” with, “Beirut, actually”? But leading the pack are inane basketball jokes (some of which become direct parts of the action) that are so pervasive that they’re a category of their own here. There’s an especially cringe-worthy deus ex machina built around them in one major scene. Rodman’s character has nothing to do whatsoever with basketball, so for the movie to just keep laying on (or should I join in and say “laying up”?) basketball references and even moves in the fights leaves the fourth wall far too flimsy for the serious action movie this also kinda sorta wants to be.

And that brings us to Mr. Rodman’s almost universally panned performance — but that much at least can be cut some slack, and not just because JCVD while better is not the best himself (but he also effectively made up for that with other talents). They actually play decently off of each other; they’re even entertaining enough when exchanging mutually flubbed lines (one by accent, one by acting) or horrendous dialogue. The one thing the script and leads handle better than expected is developing their characters’ relationship, as their initial brawl literally only lasts 5 seconds but quaintly summarizes their mutual but uneasy respect.

They were just having fun here and not even trying too hard, probably almost as aware of how ridiculous it all was as the audience (and Tsui, for that matter). Furthermore, Rodman still fared better or no worse than any of his colleagues’ efforts during that very same period, even if his teammate (and polar opposite in image and personality) Michael Jordan had a much bigger box office hit with Space Jam. And dare I remind anyone of Shaquille O’Neal’s classic turn as Kazaam the Rapping Genie?

But one person who didn’t seem to be in the same spirit (or at some points, even the same movie) as the others was Rourke, who for whatever reason gave this nonsense his all. But it’s not too surprising, seeing how Rourke had a more serious reputation as a jack of all trades, driven more by talent and dedication than image and attitude or commercialism. In addition to his own occasional music crossover (with David Bowie) or videogame voice acting, he would learn various side talents to prepare for roles. But the greatest impact on Rourke’s career and role here was having had a sparse but remarkable 4-year run as a pro boxer, which was no doubt crucial to letting him credibly spar with JCVD here.

Thinking about it then, Double Team doesn’t do too badly with its modest, superficial-but-cool goal. So it’s at least worth consideration for anyone who’s a big fan of at one or preferably more of its main players. Anyone coming for Tsui’s ingenuity, JCVD’s physical prowess, Rodman’s sheer image and novelty value or Rourke’s performance — with all but the latter embracing their ludicrous lot as Rourke struggles against it — should at least be able to tolerate it (and 88 Films’ quite sharp transfer helps as much as it can). So in the right state of mind, one can have genuine fun with this. But if anyone comes for an actual movie or something….? Or a story….? Well, they sure dived into the wrong underwater laser defence pool.  

“Are you sure this works?…. Are you sure?

“Look — you die, you get a full refund.”

Double Team is available on UK Blu-ray now from 88 Films.

 

 

Side notes

Believe it or not, this is probably one of the better productions from mogul Moshe Diamant, who has produced more than one of the most questionable Hollywood movies of all time. But they had a regular habit of featuring high-profile roles/cameos from non-movie celebrities. Just how dreadful some of them could get was strongly hinted in their very names like 1988’s Diamond Ninja Force, 2002’s FeardotCom, and all-time “favourite”, 1990’s Ghosts Can’t Do It — featuring Donald Trump in a pivotal role that makes Rodman’s here look like Best Actor material.

Speaking of whom, a decade and a half after this, Rodman would make a surprise comeback in the public eye in even more controversial fashion than his sports career, when he’d strike up a partnership with another flamboyant Asian movie producer: Kim Jong Un. While Un isn’t nearly as….active in the filmmaking process as his father was, he’s still a mega-mogul who always has final say in all productions in his country. He’s also an even bigger basketball fan than the makers of Double Team. So who knows? Maybe someday they’ll collaborate on a movie (can’t rule anything out with Rodman).

In case anyone is wondering about gender politics, don’t think too hard. The industry gender designation was simply based on some of the most prominent symbolism for the two industries: Oscars are male, while HK Film Awards are female. And JCVD is alpha male.

About the author

Wally AdamsWally Adams Wally Adams
Born & raised in North Carolina, a citizen of the world. Asian cinema is but one of many avatars of my longtime fascination with cinema, general culture, music and languages throughout the world. But by now I recognize it may be the strongest of them all and sum it up like this: Whether Mifune in a duel or Madhuri in a dance, Song Kang-ho being a dunce or Gordon Liu in his stance, the finest Asian cinema always leaves me in a trance. Find me on Facebook.
Read all posts by Wally Adams

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