WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Ripples in the past make presidential candidate Senator McComb increasingly rich, and the only man with the guts to stop him is Time Enforcement Commission officer Max Walker, still reeling from the murder of his wife ten years ago in 1994. As Walker gets ever more involved in his investigation, the ruthless senator tries to ensure that Walker is thrown off the trail – if necessary, before he ever starts out.
The appearance of Confederate-stamped gold in the late 20th Century frightens the American Senate into setting up the Time Enforcement Commission to monitor time travel. On the one hand, this is good news for Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) as he gets a job with the new agency; on the other, it’s very bad news, as a couple of Kurgan-like goons stalk Max and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) – pregnant, though Max is unaware – and torch their house in the middle of the night, killing Melissa and leaving Max for dead.
Ten years later, Max can’t forget his wife but is being kept busy at the TEC, since his partner is abusing his power by taking advantage of the Great Depression to earn millions for a mysterious backer. Walker has a hunch that the man raising the money is power-hungry Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), but he has any number of fights on his hands (and feet) to prove it, with heavies and his under-pressure boss Eugene Matuzak (Bruce McGill) literally or metaphorically busting his balls, respectively.
Walker goes back to 1994 with new crime-fighting partner Sarah Fielding (Gloria Reuben) but can’t stop McComb from giving himself instructions on how to become even more insanely rich and powerful; indeed, with the ‘help’ of Fielding he barely gets back at all, and then has to beg Matuzak to send him back again to intercept the amazed Melissa and prevent her murder at (what Walker now knows to be) the hands of McComb’s punks. In doing so, he discovers Melissa’s secret and helps his former self out of a few tight scrapes too.
Clearly one thing you want from your film reviewer is consistency, and judging Timecop by the standards of better-funded Hollywood movies shows Peter Hyams’ film as lacking polish. You would, for example, prefer van Damme to have a less thick accent, for his acting chops to be more nuanced, and for his script to be wittier. Similarly, whilst Ron Silver makes for a splendidly callous B-movie villain, it would have been nice for him to have more quirks than just a violent temper (he comes across as a poor man’s Al Pacino). Although the effects are by and large pretty good, the cars are similar to the chunky Lego constructions found in Total Recall (car designers must have had a collective breakdown between 1994 and 2004) and the climactic special effect is distinctly unspecial: you’ll know the one I mean when you get to it.
All of which said, it’s pretty silly to judge films starring ‘The Muscles from Brussels’ by the same standards as mainstream films. He doesn’t quite carry off his kickboxing skills with the same charm as Jackie Chan, but his fighting is efficient and precise and guarantees a certain thrill. Timecop’s set-pieces are naturally geared around Van Damme’s strengths, leading to some entertaining one-on-one battles and impressive stunts, such as his balancing act on a kitchen work surface.
Moreover, it’s not just about the action: the story is solid (given the usual caveats about time travel, about which more in a minute) and told unfussily, the reproductions of the past (ie. The American Civil War and Wall St in 1929) are brief but perfectly decent, and although there is the requisite amount of gratuitous sex, it’s over with fairly early in the piece and is balanced by a decent performance from Sara and some believable emoting from Van Damme as he watches old tapes of his wife (whether this copies from, or was copied by, Minority Report is something I haven’t managed to work out yet).
Since the movie doesn’t dwell on them, it’s only afterwards that you consider the traditional pitfalls of time travel films, such as: if McComb’s heavies have always been in the 1994 timeline, hasn’t Max from 2004 always been there as well? Also, if Max from 2004 does change the past and stops McComb from abusing the technology, what is there for the TEC to do afterwards? And when 2004 Max gets ‘home’, what happens to the 1994 Max who has been such a good husband and father all this time? Does he just wink out of existence? Such questions accompany any film dealing with time travel, but it has to be said that films such as Twelve Monkeys (or more properly the magical La Jetée) address the conundrum with a greater measure of finesse.
Were Martians to land demanding examples of the best humanity had to offer, I personally wouldn’t offer up Timecop as the pinnacle of cinema; in a straight line of films lined up in order from execrable to superb, it probably wouldn‘t even make it as far as ‘good‘. However, if the same Martians landed demanding a laugh and a good night out, when we got back from the pub with our kebabs in what passed for our hands Timecop might well be the first film in the player. And that’s not to be condescending; Van Damme, mullet and all, does what he does with aplomb in a film with a kickin’ story to match.