REVIEW: Knock Off (1998)

Bear with me. Knock Off is an action vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme, released in 1998 when his Hollywood career had arguably peaked and his films were on a rapid one-way highway to the video store. It was not a success in theatres. It is written by Steven E. De Souza, who may have written Die Hard but who also co-wrote Hudson Hawk and Judge Dredd and wrote and directed the Van Damme Street Fighter. It co-stars every critic’s favourite punching bag, comic actor Rob Schneider. It is, I promise you, a surprising amount of fun.

Van Damme plays fashion industry entrepreneur Marcus Ray, who discovers that not only is his business partner Tommy Hendricks (Schneider) a CIA agent but both of them are involved in a criminal bid by the Russian mob to hide tiny explosive devices in a variety of contraband goods en route from Hong Kong to America. The concept is absurd. De Souza’s dialogue and characterisation is certainly in keeping with his notorious Street Fighter work. The production budget does not stretch to the kind of pyrotechnic explosions that the screenplay demands. By the way, it is Schneider who is by-and-large the straight man: Van Damme plays ‘the funny one’.

So far so disastrous, and had Knock Off been shot in America with an American crew it would most likely have been unwatchable. Instead the film has been directed by Hong Kong action legend Tsui Hark, and unlike his previous collaboration with Van Damme (1997’s Double Team) this production was shot in Hong Kong with a local crew. The cinematography is by Arthur Wong, whose previous work includes Armour of God and Once Upon a Time in China. Editor Marco Mak also edited Iron Monkey and Full Alert. The second unit was handled by actor-director Sammo Hung. The musical score is by Ron and Russell Mael of the cult pop group Sparks.

Knock Off is full-bore Hong Kong as well. There is a foot chase through the city mid-levels. Van Damme and Schneider are regular customers for dim sum. The CIA operate a secret monitoring station from within the Lantau Island Buddha. The notorious Kai Tak International Airport makes a prominent appearance. Someone is even bludgeoned unconscious with half a durian. The graininess of the film throughout the picture is in keeping with Handover-era Hong Kong cinema. The pace is fast and furious. In the action scenes – and there are several great ones – the editing and photography experiment with speed, focus, and frame rates like nobody’s business. The long and the short of it is this: had Knock Off starred a Chinese actor, was delivered in Cantonese, and released by a Hong Kong studio, it would today be widely acknowledged as a cult classic. Instead it is remembered broadly as another failed, interchangeable Van Damme picture and rarely discussed at all. This is nothing less than a passable Cantonese action-comedy in disguise.

The script is, no matter who produced the film, absolutely terrible. Co-star Paul Sorvino looks awkward and uncomfortable as a CIA middle manager. Schneider actually acquits himself rather well, especially in comparison to the more egregious comedies in his career. Even Van Damme brings a fairly jovial sense of fun. He seems to know the film is ridiculous, and appears to at least he having fun. I cannot tell a lie – I had an unexpected amount of fun as well.

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