December 14th, 2009

KNOCK-OFF (1998) ** ½

You have to give Jean Claude Van Damme credit for bringing Hong Kong directors to Hollywood.  If it wasn’t for him, most American moviegoers would never have been exposed to John Woo.  Van Damme also got Tsui (Zu:  Warriors from the Magic Mountain) Hark to direct Double Team and Knock Off but since both films failed miserably at the box office, it  pretty much cost him his theatrical acting career.


Now Double Team was a pretty crappy movie that at least had the benefit of a bat shit insane final act.  Knock Off picks up from that crazed momentum and hits the ground running with a lot of mind-numbing weirdness.  Too bad it runs out of manic energy about halfway through.


Van Damme stars as a dishonest fashion mogul known as the “King of the Knock Offs” whose new line of clothing includes a brand of fake designer jeans.  The Russian mob and crooked CIA agents team up to put tiny explosive devices in the rivets and ship them out to unsuspecting customers.  Rob Schneider co-stars as Van Damme’s business partner, Lela Rochon plays an angry executive from the real jeans company, and Paul Sorvino is the head of the CIA.  None of them are who they seem and end up double-crossing and triple-crossing Van Damme and each other.


Hark films the action in an over-the-top manner and some of the camerawork is just jaw-droppingly bizarre (there is a POV shot of a foot going into a shoe) but the mayhem kinda subsides during the last half-hour and the flick becomes more or less routine.  Although the movie pretty much falls apart at the seams (not unlike Van Damme’s cheap-o jeans), I still maintain that any movie that features explosive jeans, exploding kewpie dolls, underground rickshaw races, shitty CGI close-ups of the inner-workings of cellular phones, a safe that doubles as a rocket launcher, and multiple green explosions can’t be all that bad.  No matter how convoluted and bogged down Knock Off gets, it still has a scene in it where Rob Schneider whips Jean Claude Van Damme on the ass with an eel.  When’s the last time you saw THAT in a movie?


Suggested Drinking Game:  Take a shot every time someone says “knock off” and you’ll be in an alcoholic coma before the film reaches the half-hour mark.


A conductor sees a spectral locomotive bearing down on him, and to avoid a head-on collision he derails the train.  Since there is no evidence that the ghost train exists, he’s labeled a loony bird.  His sexy daughter and a judge’s pinochle-playing son team up to investigate and clear the confused conductor’s name.


The Phantom Express isn’t as creaky as most of these murder mysteries from the 30’s.  There’s a lot of camera movement (sure the camera is just mounted to the railroad tracks but still) and more outdoor scenes than you’d expect from this sort of thing.  The train crash sequences are also well done and the models don’t look all that obvious.


Although the premise is novel, the plot gets more and more routine as it wears on.  There’s also an abundance of unnecessary supporting players that get in the way of the mystery at hand.  The final twist is predictable but the way the bad guys created the ghost train was pretty inventive.  Whenever the conductor is riding the rails and doing battle with The Phantom Express, the movie is a lot of fun.  However, once his daughter and her boyfriend get involved, the flick goes off the tracks.