4 Reasons Timecop is a Modern Masterpiece
If you've been feeling a tingle of excitement lately but didn't know why, it's because Sept. 16 was the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of Timecop, and the 10-year anniversary of the date in which the events of Timecop take place. That's right -- according to Jean-Claude Van Damme's visionary, wheel-kicking, future epic, we were supposed to be so familiar with time travel by the year 2004 that not only would regular people have casual access to a destiny-shaping time tunnel but an entire police force would have to be created in order to make sure nobody went fucking crazy with it. Which of course they would, hence the existence of Time Officer Van Damme and his healthy commission in the Ministry of History Defense.
Are you ready to experience the totality that is Timecop? If you are, here are four things to keep in mind as you celebrate the 20th/10th anniversary of one of the greatest Septembers of my childhood.
If You Want to Buy Timecop, You Have to Travel Back in Time
If you want a physical copy of Timecop, you might have to actually travel back in time to acquire it, because finding one in 2014 is more challenging than I expected. For whatever reason, the demand for Timecop isn't sufficient enough to provoke retailers into keeping a ready stock of Timecop DVDs, videocassettes, or Blu-rays. It isn't on Netflix streaming at the time of this writing, and, in fact, Netflix's supply of Van Damme movies is woefully anemic (it is only seven titles deep, one of which is the sixth Universal Soldier installment, which is the Van Damme equivalent of the fifth Police Academy). You can order a copy from Amazon, but if you're in a situation where you need to watch Timecop immediately, which I suspect you are, then you need to rent or buy it from Amazon's streaming service. Or, you can light some incense and meditate in front of a Timecop poster and wait for the film to beam itself into your consciousness (you will need to have already purchased a Timecop poster for this particular strategy to work).
The only other option is to glide through a wormhole back to September of 1994 and buy a ticket to see Timecop. This might actually be the best option, because that way your anniversary celebration will be mistaken as excitement for the release of Van Damme's thrilling new blockbuster, as opposed to an unhealthy compulsion to chronicle the oddest corners of pop culture history.
Time Travel Is Not the Most Improbable Thing in Timecop
There is actually surprisingly little time travel in Timecop. It's mostly people talking about time travel, and for some reason everyone just keeps going back to the year 1994, instead of cruising to the Jurassic period to capture stegosauruses like non-ridiculous people. Apparently 1994 is the only point in history when anything worthwhile happened.
Anyway, as was previously mentioned, the events of Timecop take place in 2004, a distant stardate on the horizon of human achievement that Hollywood producers of the mid-'90s felt certain would divulge the secrets of time travel. However, as if the screenwriters were on a mission to outdo their own dangerous optimism, time travel is somehow not the most ridiculous thing about Timecop.
For instance, right at the beginning of the movie we're treated to a closed-door meeting of harrumphing politicians as they simultaneously learn that time travel has been invented and decide to earmark a quarter of the national budget to defend it from terrorists. Incidentally, the best way to begin your Van Damme action movie is with a bunch of middle-aged men muttering in a dark room for 10 minutes.
The suspense grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go.
No one is disputing the idea that a waddle-necked team of politicians would approve the expense of billions of dollars on the defense of an impossible technology. That would absolutely happen, because that's how we understand things in America. However, nobody even has any time machines yet. America doesn't even have any time machines yet. The head of the time-machine committee literally just strolls into the office and hands them a business proposal. Thirty seconds earlier, he was one of maybe three people on the planet who knew time travel existed. Now he asks four members of congress for a hundred fortunes to outfit a time-slipping defense league, and they approve it without discussion. I've seen more intense arguments over which Rocky sequel to watch.
Ten years later we see the fruit of this unprecedented request, the Time Enforcement Commission. The TEC's headquarters leads to immediately wonder who has embezzled the billions of dollars the TEC was meant to receive. For instance, here's their intimidatingly sophisticated time machine:
Why in the Wellsian butt-thunder is there a concrete slab at the end of the time runway? Why wouldn't they just leave the back wall open, or put in a ball pit or something? Why does the approved method of time travel consist of tying a time explorer to a drag racer and sling-shotting them into a giant stone wedge? They tie cushions to the goal posts at a football game, you'd think they'd at least bungie-cord a mattress to the Time Stone. "Hitting concrete at the speed of light" has to be just above "running in place" on the list of time-travel methodology.
If you aren't hip-deep in Jesus and dinosaurs by the time you hit this wall, you were never meant to be a time-traveler.
Also, every time someone successfully bursts through the fabric of our universe and journeys into the past, the rocket sled time car is nowhere to be found. They either fall out of the sky in some random area of Washington, or materialize in the middle of a busy highway with an 18-wheeler bearing down on them like the angry mechanical specter of God's vengeance, punishing the TEC for having the audacity to piss science into his face like R. Kelly in a labcoat:
And yet every time an agent returns to the future/present, they're back in the car:
Is the car just waiting in the time stream like a cab with the meter running?
Just in time for us to finish wondering who the hell is responsible for all of this equipment, Timecop introduces us to the Memory Protection Department's lead tech guru Ricky, who is busy wearing his sex visor at work.
Reality as we know it is in danger of being unmade two inches in front of him, and he's watching cocaine-fueled behind-the-scenes footage from a Gap fashion shoot on his Oculus Rift. He is buried beneath a porn helmet while history is being jeopardized in front of his face. To understand why this shouldn't be played for laughs, picture an air-traffic controller masturbating into a View-Master while he's supposed to be guiding airplanes safely to the ground. That's the kind of fireable offense that also comes with prison time.
Can you imagine working with this motherfucker every day?
At two different points in Timecop, Van Damme returns from a mission only to discover that the future has changed, and nobody else remembers the way the world was before he left. Even his closest friends don't know what the hell he is talking about. Now, these people all work in the uniquely specific field of time defense -- the possibility of altering the timeline of the universe is the entire reason their jobs exist. This cannot be the first time this has happened.
"When I left, you were black."
You'd think with an agency that deals exclusively in time travel, there would be some kind of protocol on the books for situations in which time-traveling cosmonauts come back from a journey into the past frantically spitting out rambling, incongruous memories about an alternate reality. But no, everyone just dismisses it immediately as, "What's with the kooky talk, sport? Sounds like you've been hittin' the time whiskey." Which, of course, Van Damme has, but that is irrelevant to the situation.
"I've run out of things to kick."
Second, everyone in Van Damme's future owns a self-driving Batmobile, which is an entirely different impossible technology, wholly separate from time travel, that we were no closer to achieving when this film was produced.
This isn't a time machine. It's a Hyundai.
Van Damme drives this miracle machine to his voice-activated apartment, which you may recognize as yet another technology we were by no means 10 years away from conquering in 1994. In this scene, the house computer has no trouble recognizing Van Damme's voice commands, although on most days I imagine it's much more of a trial-and-error process.
The Villains Are Simultaneously the Smartest and Dumbest Characters in the Movie
The premise of Timecop involves a corrupt United States senator, played by Ron Silver, sending various henchmen into the past to steal money for him so that he can become both a billionaire and the president. Honestly, if you have access to a time machine and you set your goals any lower than that, you are using your time machine incorrectly.
However, in the very first scene of the movie, we see one of these henchmen blast a detachment of Confederate soldiers with a pair of futuristic machine guns to steal their supply of racist gold. Why, in all of history, would you go to Civil War-era Georgia to pull off your time heist? Surely there are more obvious ways to abuse time travel than capturing a shipment of outdated currency. You can't walk into a bank and hand them a stack of gold bars. It's like Silver is challenging himself with his own plan to keep his mind limber.
"Between this and all the Nazi gold, I'm a billionaire!"
Because he's clearly no fool. In one scene, he takes a tour of the Time Enforcement Commission's facilities, with Van Damme in tow, and announces his intention to shut the whole place down. Silver's assertion that it makes way more sense to eliminate time travel than to spend billions of dollars policing it is played for maximum sinisterness, despite the fact that this line is delivered 30 minutes into the film and is the most cogent thing anyone has said up to that point. It's as if the public-servant part of his brain immediately recognized the threat time travel possessed, but the self-serving reptile part of his brain couldn't resist exploiting it.
"I could go back in time disguised as Wolf Blitzer and conquer CNN from within!"
Before we get too ahead of ourselves congratulating his genius, let's take a moment to examine Silver's henchmen, who, without exception, all look like members of Color Me Badd. I assume this was an explicit part of the interview process.
Early in the film, Silver sends a pair of them to assassinate Van Damme in his talking apartment. The first guy tries to shoot Van Damme in the face with a Taser. Just straight in the fucking face with a two-pronged lightning gun. Even on a list of sadistic ways to murder a person, this would be near the bottom. You'd have to go through five pages of way more practical ideas before landing on "electrocuting a drunken widower's face to death."
"I'm satisfied with my decision."
The second hitman attacks with karate screams, instead of using either of the two knives he brought with him.
"Wh ... what?"
Later, two more henchmen are dispatched to the past to kill a TEC agent while she's lying in a hospital bed, recovering from an exhausting afternoon of double-crossing Van Damme. As the scene unfolds, you can immediately appreciate the zero effort that Silver makes to ensure his time-traveling assassins will blend in to a mid-'90s emergency ward.
Look at them, disappearing into the crowd like shadows.
The two assassins are the most conspicuous men in the hospital, EVEN MORE CONSPICUOUS THAN TIME-TRAVELING POLICEMAN JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME. The tall guy looks like he's wearing two different wigs sewn together.
Like Grace Jones and Troy Polamalu headbutted each other in a wind tunnel.
He could've at least worn a Toronto Raptors hat to avoid being immediately picked up by contemporary authorities for being an obvious murderer.
Van Damme Just Van Dammes the Shit out of Everything
There's an undercurrent to Timecop that, I assume, in one draft was supposed to be the primary focus -- Van Damme witnesses the murder of his wife, and despite the fact that he travels back in time every single day to thwart people from changing the past for personal gain, he can never use the same technology to prevent his wife's death. That's incredibly heavy stuff. That's an unbearable burden. You'd think he would've worked that into his benefits package the day he got hired as Timecop. "OK, time travel exists, so obviously I'm going to go back in time to prevent my wife's nefarious murder. But right after that, I'll get started on preventing all that time crime we're anticipating."
"I mean, no one can really argue with that, right?"
However, you can't set out to make a delicately cerebral science-fiction thriller and then cast Van Damme as a time detective. That's like hiring pro wrestlers to move your furniture. Everything is going to end up broken and coated in a concentrated mist of furious action sweat.
Our introduction to Van Damme's character is watching him stop a roller-skating purse-snatcher with a sustained high kick and a terrible joke -- he thrusts his boot into the villain's face and says, "Read between the lines." His boots say Wolverine, by the way.
"It ... it's just a single word, there are no lines. I feel like if I say the wrong thing, you're going to kick my face from my body."
Now we have a 10-second sex scene with a preamble of a porn soundtrack. The saxophone player has time to play, like, two notes before Van Damme shudders out a thunderous Belgian orgasm and heaves Mia Sara aside like a wet bag of concrete. Oddly enough, this movie's entire soundtrack is a smooth jazz love scene from a Lethal Weapon movie. Remember, this is supposed to be a film about the ironic torment of a man being forced to preserve a past in which his wife dies before the age of 30, and not 20 minutes in we have already come as close to seeing Van Damme's asshole as any human being was meant to.
Wait, how many people are in there?
Also, despite being an elite time detective, Van Damme's investigative process consists of staring at a picture of the bad guy while a moody piano suite plinks away softly in the background.
"REVEAL YOUR HIDDEN CRIME SECRETS!"
When evil Silver shows up to spread his smarmy villainy around TEC headquarters, Van Damme is supposed to be annoyed that his work day is being interrupted, but he seems genuinely relieved. All he's doing when Silver arrives is sitting on his desk (not behind his desk -- that's an important distinction), holding a pen that he immediately tosses away like a live grenade. When was the last time you saw Van Damme write anything in a movie? If it can't be done with his feet, then he doesn't do it.
"I tried writing this report with my foot and just ax-kicked my desk in half."
The scene in which the most Van Damming occurs is when the two assassins attack him in his apartment after he spends an evening drinking heavily and watching old home movies of his wife. After successfully dodging the Taser attack and coming face-to-face with Screaming Knife Murderer, Van Damme glances over to his kitchenette to search for a weapon, resulting in my favorite shot of the entire film:
At some point in between weepily consuming an entire bottle of whiskey and passing out in front of his dead wife's birdhouse-construction video, Van Damme stopped to cut up a bunch of vegetables for absolutely no reason and left them all out on the counter. He literally cut halfway through an onion and stopped mid-vegetable, just leaving the knife there, presumably as a warning to would-be intruders both about his state of mind and his access to cutlery. Also, the movie gives us every reason to believe that he probably did this in his underpants.
In fact, this is probably the exact circumstance that caused him to abruptly stop cutting vegetables.
The best part is, he doesn't actually use that knife. We never see that knife again. He just gets the shit stabbed out of him until he's able to set up an elegant side kick, which is his signature move and, as such, deals increased damage. This explosive scene ends with Van Damme doing the splits for the second time in less than an hour.
The Taser guy's death is one of the finest 10 seconds of 1990s cinema. It's the karma of his choice of murder weapon swinging back around to punish him. He falls 20 feet and pierces a giant sheet of electric glass head-first, after Van Damme freeze-smashes half his body with liquid nitrogen and inexplicably misses an opportunity to say "Have an ICE day."
Again, this is all taking place in a science-fiction film about the tragedy of a time traveler who is forbidden to alter the past to save his dead wife. Van Damme cannot waste time with subtlety while he is busy Van Damming.
Notice the distinct lack of subtlety.
How does he escape capture at the hospital while being pursued by police? By jumping through a fourth-story window, because it was Friday evening and the screenwriters needed to get to Applebee's for trivia night. VAN DAMME.
How does he finally save his wife from being murdered? By teaming up with his past self for a dual Van Damme assault. VAN DAMME.
Not since Double Impact have villains been forced to face two Van Dammes.
Van Damme returns after rescuing his wife to find that everything in the future has been set right. He leaves the office and drives up to his house, which is unexploded for some reason despite having clearly exploded 10 years earlier in the previous scene, and he meets his son for the first time as the little guy toddles outside to hug him (in the previous timeline, his wife had died before their son was born).
There's no nice way to say this -- Van Damme's kid looks like a total melvin. He looks like an Eddie Bauer catalog threw up in a K-Mart bathroom. I like to believe they filmed an alternate ending in which Van Damme is thrown into a rage after seeing how his son is dressed and goes back in time to unmake the future.
"MY CHILD IS WEARING THREE SHIRTS. IS THIS MY REWARD? LIFE IS MEANINGLESS."
Timecop ends with Timecop passionately kissing his wife, finally able to hold her again after 10 years of brutal mourning, and she gives him a strange look and says, "You all right?" I know it's been 10 years, but she HAS to remember the night her two husbands killed a bunch of time terrorists and blew up her house. She must've known that, at some point in the future, Van Damme was going to come home from work and just collapse into a sobbing heap in her arms. Sure, there'd be a moment of initial confusion, but then you'd think everything would click.
"Oh, this must be the day you went back in time and stopped a U.S. senator from blowing me up."
Then they go inside, where presumably Van Damme will be getting naked again.
That house is about to explode once more, for an entirely different reason.
Tom is growing out his time mullet in preparation for the 20th anniversary of Stargate. Read his novel Stitchesand follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.
For more from Tom, check out 3 Bands Who Completely Disowned Their Former Members and 5 Famous Filmmakers Whose Dream Projects Were Disasters.
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