Action / Adventure, Buddy, Comedy, Films, Hong Kong, Recommended posts, Reviews, Suspense / Thriller, USA

Knock Off

A crazy, OTT dash through Handover-era Hong Kong with JCVD is better than it has any right to be…

How do you explain a movie like Knock Off? It’s a buddy action movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Rob Schneider, written by Steven E. de Souza, the writer behind Commando (1985) and Die Hard (1988) but whose most recent credits at the time included the rather less memorable Street Fighter (1994) and Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995), three factors which are usually enough to send a film straight into the bargain bins. But it’s directed by Tsui Hark, a hyper-imaginative director; there’s second unit work and action choreography by Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung; and a soundtrack written by Sparks. Set in and around the Hong Kong Handover, there’s also a politically acerbic undercurrent: amidst the stupidity, there are stabs angled at colonial and imperial attitudes towards Hong Kong and its independence, and musings on the city’s mixed and international identity.

The basic plot, in so far as this writer can understand it, is that Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a knock-off jeans merchant who, along with his business partner Schneider finds himself in the middle of a plot by Russian mafia to build nano bombs that would then be shipped to America, snuck into consumer goods, which would then be used to threaten the US. To make matters more confusing, most major characters have a secret identity or are operating undercover, suggesting identity itself as a counterfeit product, as per the title. But everything the film lacks in logic it makes up for in sheer visual imagination and bizarro detail.

That comes down principally to the crew. Tsui, one of Hong Kong’s most visually restless and hyperactive directors, continually finds new and brilliant ways to visualise scenes. When Schneider and Van Damme are in trouble with their company boss (Lela Rochon), a shot from her POV towers above the duo as if she’s 8ft tall. A sniper shot smash cuts into the barrel and out. Even something as simple as Van Damme putting on a knock-off trainer is filmed from the POV of Van Damme’s foot. Why? No clue. But it’s a hell of a shot.

Tsui’s restlessness can be frustrating. Even basic dialogue scenes aren’t given room to breathe (though would you trust Van Damme and Schneider with that space? One is a vacant canvas, the other can barely stop gurning) and Tsui won’t let characters sit or even say a line without a zoom, dolly or an unusual composition present.

When every scene is set to 11, it’s hard to separate those truly brilliant peaks in the film. But at the very least, Tsui respects filmic space and cause-and-effect in action. Unlike the hyperactive, over-cutting action directors of Hollywood like Tony Scott and Michael Bay, the rapid pace is a side effect of Tsui’s sheer imagination, rather than a method of covering up the lack thereof.

The actual fight scenes are, as you would expect, top notch, a team and crew working brilliantly together. Van Damme is as physical as you would expect in these scenes. A rickshaw race at the beginning has some exquisite stunt work, and a fight scene in a fruit market, utilising durian fruits and scooters, is a mini masterwork of choreography, editing and visual imagination.

Amidst all the chaos, there’s a film that hooks onto the mood of Handover-era Honk Kong. A rogue’s gallery of villains, including Russians and Americans out for profit, suggests a Hong Kong anxious about its future and its past – a small, cramped city with a wide array of diasporic cultures – asking questions about who gets to influence its future, and what a Hong Kong identity might look like – especially when it is defined, as so often, by bigger forces than Hong Kongers themselves, enforcing inauthentic identities upon the city. Hence, the title song’s lyrics; “I can guess that though you really wear it well / What you’re wearing well / It’s a knockoff.”

There are flaws aplenty here. Knock Off doesn’t quite surpass its hyperactive pacing and narrative scattershooting, not aided by the fact that producers took the film away from Tsui for re-cutting, nor by bizarre dubbing (most of the Hong Kong actors, reputedly well-versed in English, did not dub themselves). But the visual imagination, the excellent action work and an underlying political sharpness make this worth revaluating. Knock Off is more original than at first glance.

Knock Off is available on UK Blu-ray now from 88 Films.

About the author

Fedor TotFedor Tot Fedor Tot
Fedor Tot is a freelance film critic and editor, born in the former Yugoslavia, raised in Wales. He specialises in film history, particularly the cinema of the former Yugoslavia (and will bite your arm off talking about it), but he's fairly omnivorous when it comes to film - Hong Kong action, South Korean crime, and Japenese drama are all fair game. Other bylines include Calvert Journal, Bright Wall/Dark Room and BFI Network.
Read all posts by Fedor Tot

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