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Director Hart Tsui's 'Knock Off' Is More Than Your Average Chase Scene.

By Stacey Richter

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  THE NIGHT AFTER I saw Knock Off, I dreamed I was at a party where the cartoonist Dan Clowes kept asking me if I liked Jean-Claude Van Damme. I kept answering, "Like? What do you mean by like?" Finally I said I didn't have enough information to know whether I "liked" Van Damme or not. Then I found a flat yellow slug on the floor and put it into a matchbox so I could deliver it to the military for identification purposes.

When I woke, I was struck by how consistent dream-logic was with the plot-logic of Knock Off. While not exactly surreal, Knock Off stumbles through its storyline as if it makes sense, while it truly makes no sense whatsoever. This is evident in the premise alone: Jean-Claude is a fashion designer helping the CIA battle a secret Russian plan for world domination. Ha! These particular Russians are communists (I guess) who have planted tiny microscopic explosives in all sorts of American consumer goods...No wait, the Russians are capitalists, because they want to extort a huge, monthly ransom--sort of like cable subscription--to not detonate the wee explosives, which are lodged in the button of your jeans, pal. Did I mention that this is set in Hong Kong?

The Russians are also new wave. You should see their hair! I think I should mention that I really "liked" this movie, and the more I think about it, the better I do. Director Hart Tsui has been making movies in Hong Kong since the late '70s, yet here he's managed to tap a Zen, beginner's-mind vein of creativity so that Knock Off seems as if it were made by a precocious 10-year-old boy. There are tons of explosions (including a crate full of baby dolls), a bunch of chase scenes (one with a rickshaw), and a zillion bad guys who seem to propagate more of their own each time one is killed, like cutting the arms off of starfish. There's so much action that I actually looked forward to the exposition--not as a break exactly, but because I kept hoping I'd catch on to the plot. I kept hoping there was a plot.

Silly me. By the end of the movie, I'd realized that plots are just stupid distractions from shots of things exploding, shots of blood-smeared cleavage, shots of Van Damme shucking off his pants, shots of naked fat men running, etc. Though it took the whole movie to convince me of this. Before that, I sometimes felt like I was watching someone play a video game I didn't understand: Who is he shooting at? How did they survive the exploding Buddha? Why are those henchmen suddenly wearing hooded raincoats?

But what Knock Off lacks in sense, it makes up for in camera work, and in acting. The acting isn't good or anything, but it's pretty amusing to watch the great character actor Paul Sorvino (Mira's dad), who plays a CIA operative, mouth his lines as though each one pushes some sort of painful probe deeper into his body. And Rob Schneider's sincere, manic energy never cracks in his role as Tommy Hendricks, Van Damme's undercover sidekick. As in 1960's auteur theory, which argued that the imprint of a great director was even more evident, albeit in subversive form, in his pandering commercial work, I believe that interesting acting in schlock movies is a true sign of craft.

Then there's Van Damme: He's not a great actor, but he tries really, really hard, you can tell. The physical presence of the Muscles From Brussels cannot be denied, and though he lacks the grace of Jackie Chan, he lumbers through his stunts with passable agility. Plus, he keeps taking off his clothes--sometimes for a reason, sometimes not. When the final chase/fight/explosion scene started to really heat up, Van Damme whipped off his shirt, for no reason except that he could.

Hart Tsui spices up the soup with endlessly exuberant, utterly pointless camera work. Tsui directed Once Upon a Time in China, volumes I-V, and there's no denying he's a massive Sergio Leone fan. Ultra-close ups are used liberally. Leone favored the use of these during moments of high tension, but Tsui uses them during banal bits of throw-away dialogue. The results are pleasantly weird. It reminds me of Yoko Ono's idea for a travelogue that would only feature extreme close-ups and narration. ("Here we are at Mt. Fuji," says a voice, and then you see a close-up of some dirt.) Tsui also favors the dizzying "zoom-in, dolly-out" shot Hitchcock invented for Vertigo, the one that makes it look as though the background is falling away while the actor remains still. This, too, is traditionally used to heighten tension; and Tsui, again, uses it to gloss over those annoying bits of dialogue he's obliged to include.

When you add it all up, you have one hauntingly strange movie--Buñuel with a lobotomy directing action, if you will. The next time Dan Clowes asks what I think of Jean-Claude Van Damme, I will say this: "I love him. He is the ballerina of nothing."


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