Knock Off (1998)

Directed by
Good silly fun
Reviewed by Simon on 2003-03-29

Tsui Hark's career took a serious down turn when he decided to try his chances in Hollywood. To be fair though, this seems to be true of pretty much everybody that decides to try a career in Hollywood. Tsui got off to a bad start when he was teamed up with Jean Claude Van Damme (an indignity every HK director seems to have to suffer on arrival in the US) to make the movie DOUBLE TEAM. I haven't seen DT, but it seems to be universally despised. However, so is KNOCK OFF for the most part, which I find to be very unfair as it has a lot to offer.

To properly appreciate the film, however, one has to take it in the proper context. One has to realise that Tsui Hark realised he was not going to be taken seriously in Hollywood, and would probably be consigned to cheesy action B-movies for ever if he stayed. I have no doubt he already planned to return to Hong Kong when he made KNOCK OFF, and decided to have a little fun first - and channel a lot of Hollywood money into Hong Kong hands at the same time. Keeping this in mind whilst watching the film reveals a whole level to it that I suspect most viewers do not appreciate.

It's clear that the script for the movie is rather absurd, but quite cleverly so. The concept of the Russians trying to take over the world by fitting miniature bombs in knock off children's toys is not one that was ever meant to be taken very seriously. Having the Russians as the main villlains is a quaintly out-dated set up, but the real interest is in the backdrop, where Tsui shows a little love for the people of Hong Kong and worries about the hand over to China in 1997.

He also decides to have a little fun at the expense of Van Damme, who is given a rather ridiculous role that makes fun of his usual image (perhaps this is why Van Damme fans don't like the movie? Though VD himself seems quite a willing participant in the fun-poking).

Rob Schneider is quite amusing but dangerously annoying as the comedy side kick, whilst Lela Rochon is particularly attractive as the primary glamour interest (who also kicks no small amount of ass). Few woman sharing a movie with Carmen Lee could come away looking good, but she manages it. The rest of the cast are an assortment of anonymous alleged russians and CIA agents, and some familiar Hong Kong faces round out most of the rest of the cast.

Tsui Hark handles the script tightly, sticking close to its B-movie heart but using it to set up some fun and playful scenes. It should all be taken a little tongue in cheek - those that have seen Tsui Hark's better works should appreciate that straight away.

As well as fun with the script and with JCVD, Tsui Hark also decides to have a *lot* of fun with his camera. Hyperkinetic camera work has always been his trademark, and here he decides to hold nothing back. There are some amazingly sophisticated and inventive shots and movements, giving the film a unique visual style (that Tsui revisited and expanded on when he returned to Hong Kong and made TIME AND TIME). It is for the visionary camerawork that the movie should really be seen.

There's also some pretty good action though, well above the average for Jean Claude Van Damme - thanks to Sammo Hung and Yuen Bun's involvement as the 2nd unit crew, no doubt. JCVD is usually something of a one-trick pony, and has barely a 10th of the physical agility and skill of his Asian contemporaries. The action directors manage to use him well here though, and the camerawork makes him look far better than he's ever done before.

It's a sad fact that most of the people that watch KNOCK OFF will probably be Jean Claude Van Damme fans, because to be honest anybody that thinks JCVD is a good martial artist probably doesn't have the experience to appreciate a Tsui Hark film. On the other hand, many Tsui Hark fans will avoid KNOCK OFF because of the presence of Jean Claude Van Damme. This is a shame, as it's really more a Tsui Hark film than a Van Damme film.

Whilst it may be Van Damme's best movie, few would dream of arguing that it's Tsui Hark's best, despite his inventiveness being in pretty good shape. It's still broadly bound by the limits of a Hollywood action movie, though, and no match for works like Once Upon A Time In China or The Blade. It would be nice to imagine that his time in Hollywood would lead to more Americans appreciating his groundbreaking Hong Kong movies, but I doubt that it has.

Still, the movie is recommended for Tsui Hark fans. Not his best, but delivers plenty of entertainment none-the-less.