The Underrated Insanity Of Tsui Hark And Jean-Claude Van Damme’s KNOCK OFF

An ode to a strange, strange movie that came from the Hong Kong action director diaspora. 

Tsui Hark’s Knock Off has fallen by the wayside, like much of America’s brief fascination with Hong Kong cinema. Which is unfortunate as the film deserves to be canonized for its commitment to insanity. It also features Jean Claude Van Damme’s best performance outside of JCVD… not that he’d recall as he’s suggested he was so coked out at the time he doesn’t remember filming it. Like I said, it’s a special movie.

Let me start with a little bit of history. Before the handoff in 1997, there was a concern (made explicit in films like Hard Boiled) that Hong Kong and its film community would be destroyed by the change of rule from England to China. This led many artists like John Woo to make films that seemed to also serve as audition reels. Hollywood -- wowed by the impressive stunts and action sequences in those movies -- were quick to work with these directors and stars in a move that draws parallels to the importing of German filmmakers in the 1930s and 40s. Actors like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat dabbled with making films in America, while directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark also tried their hand stateside. The directors were often handed low budget action movies, and all three mentioned made their first English language films with Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Van Damme’s appeal, like Chuck Norris before him and like contemporary Steven Seagal, is that he’s a white martial artist, which meant that many films were built around his ability to punch, kick and do the splits (seriously, he did the splits a lot) while speaking a form of English. Of the action guys, he’s easily one of the best actors: Seagal’s range seem to go from squinty to ticked off, while Van Damme can actually emote (perhaps like a caveman, but still). And unlike Seagal and Norris, he can be both convincing and appealing in a love scene, or if nothing else it never seemed cruel to the actress. During the 90s one could expect a Van Damme film or two a year, with Timecop his biggest hit, and Street Fighter his biggest fiasco.

Hard Target imported John Woo, and there Woo showed America he could handle our industry, while Maximum Risk got Ringo Lam to make a film about Van Damme playing twins (which he’s done a couple times) in a global thriller that was a swing and a miss, though it’s a film I find very watchable despite its flaws. By the time Tsui Hark got to Van Damme in 1997, they made a buddy picture with Dennis Rodman. Double Team came at the end of America’s fascination with Hong Kong cinema as Hollywood began to absorb their techniques, so there’s a sense with it that they threw a bunch of things in the film to make people excited. Not only do you have Hark, Van Damme and Rodman, you also get Mickey Rourke, a riff on the British TV series The Prisoner, and some very nutty action sequences, with the capper involving the heroes being saved from a gigantic fireball by a Coke machine. Double Team is pretty bonkers, and it’s well worth checking out. But it can’t compare to the gleeful insanity of Knock Off.

By 1998, when Van Damme and Hark reteamed for Knock Off, it was like the world wasn’t paying attention. For the most part, they weren’t. Though John Woo showed he could direct big blockbusters like Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2, Van Damme’s career (much like Seagal’s) was pretty much over, and films like Double Team and Knock Off grossed about ten million each. His next movie went straight to video (which was shocking then), and the film after that was Universal Soldier: The Return. It was a sequel to one of his biggest hits and when that tanked it spelled the end. 

Knock Off began with a script by Steven E. de Souza, the action writer of the 1980’s. Commando. 48 Hrs., Die Hard. The Running Man. Hudson Hawk. The Flinstones. He did it all. And by the 90s, he wanted to make fun of the films he made popular. Knock Off (as made explicit by the title), was meant to be a joke on all these same-y action movies, which may have been why Francis Ford Coppola briefly flirted with making the movie (though it’s hard to imagine his version being made with JCVD). According to de Souza, much of the film is as written. Perhaps it would have been funnier had an American directed it, but in Hark’s hands it becomes a borderline surreal concoction.

The film follows Van Damme’s Marcus Ray, a former denim knockoff artist who has moved on to work for V-6 Jeans. But as the film starts, the movie is more concerned with Russians in Hong Kong, who are not only dealing in knockoff jeans, but ones that have little explosives in them that are as powerful as a stick of dynamite, and emit green flames (yes, green flames). The movie starts in the middle of a sting operation where the Russians are trying to get their latest shipment, but something goes wrong and the cops move in. The film briefly sets up some of the Russian antagonists, mostly by giving them colorful looks, or in one case a cough. But when the cops arrive (led by Michael Wong), everything goes nuts.

And from this opening action sequence, it seems that Hark -- who directed such classically constructed films like Once Upon a Time in China and has been referred to as the Asian Spielberg -- decided he didn’t want a single shot in the movie to be boring and so every place he puts the camera is interesting and surprising. In the opening chase sequence, Michael Wong is in a boat chasing the Russians, and one of the Russians has a sniper rifle. He shoots one of Wong’s men, but to show that death, Hark cuts to blood bursting in air. It’s impressionistic, and the film borders on chaos, incoherence even, but every decision is bold and crazy. Right away he sets the tone, as the film stock seems to change in moments, and he’ll use a fisheye lens for the hell of it.

After this opening set piece we’re introduced to Marcus’ partner Tommy Hendricks (played by Rob Schneider) as the camera decides to go through an earring, because why the fuck not? He’s surrounded by models, and Schneider attempts to make jokes and points out that Marcus isn’t around. So Ray gives Marcus a call. And what does the camera do? It decides to follow the phone call through the universe. We then see Van Damme driving a nice car and singing along to a Cantonese pop song. At this point you are either with the film, or it’s just going to turn you off. Marcus checks in on some former employees, and their shoddy knockoff products (which involves Hark having a picture in picture just because), and there we meet Skinny (Glen Chin), who seems to have become the top dog in the knockoff market. He also introduces the idea that Marcus is about to be in a big race.

So the race involves rickshaws, with Marcus carrying Tommy through crowded Hong Kong streets. It seems to be a big deal because there’s Americans and Australians who are also competing. Also in the race: Eddie Wang (Wyman Wong), who’s like a brother to Marcus, and also deals in knockoffs. For the competition Marcus needs sports shoes so Tommy bought him Pumas, but it turns out the shoes are knockoffs (the name has two M’s), and the film shows Marcus putting on the shoes from his foot’s POV.

Let me say that again, Knock Off features a foot’s point of view.

So Marcus, Eddie and Tommy start the race, and it involves running through Hong Kong markets at breakneck speeds, while Marcus’ knockoff shoes start falling apart (we can tell because the camera goes inside the shoe as the glue unsticks). And by going through the marketplace, it gives Schneider a chance to grab an eel. Why? So he can whip Van Damme’s ass, which he does twice (it makes Van Damme whinny). Eddie is cheating and has a double run in his place, but that double is grabbed by Russians. Since Marcus is friends with Eddy and thinks his friend has been kidnapped, he chases the car with his rickshaw, and gets it to crash into a supermarket. Van Damme, unarmed, must take on the Russians with their guns, which leads to a bullet POV shot that goes through a can of soup. The action becomes partly impressionistic as Van Damme must sense where to move to avoid being shot. The sequence ends with Marcus and Tommy being taken in by the cops, and introduces Karen Lee (Lela Rochon), an executive from V-6 Jeans who informs them that their last shipment was stocked with knockoffs. After this terrible day, they get dinner, where Tommy is taken in by some tough looking guys. It turns out (after a fight scene) that Tommy’s CIA, and he partnered with Marcus for cover, which leads to some of the best acting in both Van Damme and Schneider’s filmography. His boss, Hendricks (Paul Sorvino), is monitoring the knockoff artists and the Russians, who it turns out are in bed with Skinny and want to kill Eddy because he sent the shipment from the beginning into the ocean. Crosses and double crosses ensue.

The first time I saw this film in theaters was probably mid-week with a friend, and we weren’t expecting much nor likely were the three other audience members, but there came a moment at the end of one of the fight sequences where there were subtitles on screen, and I was incapable of processing the words. The film offers so much unique visual information that it’s overwhelming. Which is probably why I went back and saw it again the next day, and made a point to see it five times in the theaters. The film spoke to me, and it continues to, I’ve probably watched it at least once every year, and love showing it to people who have no idea what they’re in for.

Film Crit Hulk asked me to write this piece, so allow me some Hulk level discursions. Let’s talk about filmmaking for a second. There is a language to cinema in which every shot can enhance and/or advance the storytelling. This is best shown in horror movies. Why are you tense? It’s because of what you can and can’t see, and the length of the shot(s). This is all basic 101 filmmaking stuff, so I won’t dwell on it too long, but the sad truth is the language of cinema has been degraded. This is part and parcel with so much of cinema being about making days, and the devaluing of visual storytellers. It’s the old joke of shot/reverse shot in which so much of what happens is basic information that has no flair. It used to be that TV directors were waved off as middlebrow hacks, nowadays television has become one of the best places for adult drama, the lines are blurred, and a television director helmed the most successful film of the last three years. 

Let me give an example of the good and the bad of this. There is a shot in The Avengers where the camera goes up and over the bickering Avengers to look at Loki’s staff. This shot sticks out in the movie for a couple of reasons. One is that Joss Whedon, to that point, hadn’t really done anything like that in the movie before. Like inserting iambic pentameter in the midst of a rap verse, it’s jarring. To a certain extent it should be, it’s meant to be, because it’s drawing focus to the staff. The problem is that Whedon’s visual language isn’t precise, and the fact that Loki’s staff is a corrupting agent is spelled out in the dialogue. You can see exactly what he’s trying to do, but it doesn’t quite work. To research this moment, I put the film on again, and watched the scene and then watched the movie to the end. It’s funny how Whedon isn’t a great visual storyteller (his visual sense, when not guided by special effects, is meat and potatoes), but the film is totally compelling regardless. 

Whereas a brilliant example of the shorthand of cinema can be found in Fargo. There’s a moment that’s stayed with me since first seeing the film (not that I haven’t seen it a number of times since), when William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard finds the body of his father-in-law. The film doesn’t use dialogue to convey how he feels in that moment. All we get is the shot of his trunk being popped, and we the audience know everything. That’s brilliant visual storytelling. And using the language of cinema, using the distance characters exist from the camera to suggest where they are in the world, to present POVs for a specific reason, cutting between images to create tension or parallels are why film fans may adore a film like Stoker even if the narrative isn’t all that great, or why so many of us love filmmakers like Brian De Palma and Edgar Wright. You would think a filmmaker would make every frame count for something, but that’s just not the case most of the time.
Now, I’m not about to make the argument that Tsui Hark is working on that level of mastery or perfectionism with Knock Off. No, there’s something more punk rock about the film, and what’s apparent is that there’s at least one eye-catching shot in the film every minute of screen time. And because Hark obviously knows what he’s doing behind the camera, this must be read as intentional.

And it’s the thing that keeps me coming back: Hark’s fascinating choices in terms of staging are consistently of the “what the fuck” variety. I don’t know what the boring way to film a rickshaw race is, but here there’s a shot where the camera starts from a rooftop, descends and swoops into the action. A possibly boring sequence where Lela Rochon chews out Van Damme and Schneider is staged so when Rochon stands up to talk we see it from her point of view and makes the men look smaller. They’re also put in frame with toys on a desk, which makes them seem clownish by nature. In a sequence where a bunch of faceless goons are mowed down, one is shot through the head and a white cloud of brain mist rises from his head. There are at least a hundred indelible moments in the movie, and perhaps it is sensory overload. But… that’s why I love it.

Not to mention the weirdness, cause this is a weird fucking movie (in the best possible way). Marcus has to confront Eddy about the nanobombs in the knockoff product, and it gives Van Damme his finest acting moment to date, where he tells his semi-brother that he made a deal for him with the feds as he’s threatened with a gun. Sure, you could compare it to the “pull the strings” speech in Ed Wood, but Van Damme is fully committed. That scene then ends with Eddy being targeted by a missile which sends him flying outside, to die in a green flame explosion. It’s followed by an action scene starts where Van Damme and Schneider must escape from a fruit warehouse, which is a stunning set piece of claustrophobia as most of the fruit workers have long but dull knives, and the fruit around appears to be spiky pineapples (it doesn’t have the stems so I’ve never been sure) which makes even the fruit hreatening. The sequence ends with Schneider and Van Damme escaping and mumbling “Hoola, hoola hoola. Hoola hoola hoola.”  This is then followed by a scene where Van Damme chases down Skinny, and to knock out Skinny’s bodyguards he climbs the beams in the warehouse, and uses them to jump down on his opponents.

Sometimes great directors will pull out all the stops visually, but often they end up like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Awesome in theory, but sort of torturous in its entirety. And this is similarly a kitchen sink film, but it’s as if Hark was using the film not as an audition piece, but as a chance to try everything he ever wanted to do with a camera. It’s not so much an action movie (though the action sequences are well staged, exciting and bonkers) as an experimental film that just happens to star Jean-Claude Van Damme and Rob Schneider. There may be no point to it, but in this package, as a Van Damme vehicle, it’s fascinating as it tells a coherent story that the filmmaker has little interest in. It’s more about the end fight sequence, where everyone’s on a boat that’s wet, and the motion of the water makes it easy for Van Damme to slide around (literally, like he’s on a slip and slide) and kill people. That end sequence is like nothing you would ever see in American action movie, and maybe in the context of a subtitled Hong Kong film it would seem of place, but here, with all these American actors, it achieves a sublime strangeness.

Francois Truffaut talked about a scene in Howard Hawks’ Scarface. To quote the master directly: “The most striking scene in the movie is unquestionably Boris Karloff's death. He squats down to throw a ball in a game of ninepins and doesn't get up; a rifle shot prostrates him. The camera follows the ball he's thrown as it knocks down all the pins except one that keeps spinning until it finally falls over, the exact symbol of Karloff himself, the last survivor of a rival gang that's been wiped out by Muni. This isn't literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema.” When I think about Knock Off, I think of this quote. For better or worse.

Things of note:

The film cuts from a fat man smiling to a gigantic fish. Then has Van Damme and Schneider talk while showing two men’s asses. Symbolism!

Lela Rochon gives one of the worst line readings ever in a major motion picture: “You were pretty eager to five minutes ago,” is the worst.

The theme song for the film is amazing. “I’m convinced that this is really not my song, I bought it in Hong Kong, it’s a knockoff. I’m convinced that we were really holding hands, sorry that’s no hand, it’s a knockoff. So close to real, the look, the feel, so close and yet, the paint’s still wet.” It’s one of the best novelty tie-in songs.

The film’s last line of dialogue is Rob Schneider saying “No action movie is complete without sweat.”

It’s worth nothing there’s a kind of terrible section of the movie where – towards the end – our heroes and villains are all in a boat as the handoff is taking place. The boat begins to drift out into international waters and the ship is targeted by a British officer who notes that if the boat crosses a line, he’ll have to blow it up. Conceptually, the idea that most of the heroes have no idea they’re in jeopardy from this attack, and the relief that comes for those that do know when it’s narrowly avoided is very theoretically cool, but the fact that the footage of the helicopters who are sent in to destroy the boat looks like stock footage (with some who are arming missiles shown to be unarmed) meant to pad out the film to a ninety minute run time (the film runs 91).

I once went to a screening of Goodfellas where Paul Sorvino did a Q&A beforehand. Afterwards I rushed out after him with a copy of Goodfellas and Knock Off. Point one: I was way more excited about him signing my copy of Knock Off than Goodfellas. Point two: I wasn’t sure if he’d get mad at me for even asking him to sign it, so I started by saying what a huge fan I was of the movie. Thankfully he enjoyed making it and was pleasantly shocked when I showed it to him. I was worried he might punch me.