Do the Splits!

Timecop (1994)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hollywood had a certain class of highly popular, highly successful action heroes. Schwarzenegger and Stallone began the muscle-bound action stars and their popularity gave birth to the careers of Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme as well. in the case of JCVD, he came at action not just from a martial arts perspective, which he had been studying since the age of 10, but also as a dancer, studying ballet from the age of 16. This gave him a different body type than other star, muscular but lithe, but it also allowed him to perform his signature move: the splits, right in the middle of fighting.

Credit to Van Damme, the actor worked, and worked a lot. Since his first appearance as an extra in 1979's Woman Between Wolf and Dog, the actor has appeared in over 75 films (with more on the way), and it clearly shows no sign of stopping. Now, yes, many of those have been direct-to-video fare, especially after the 1990s action movie boom slowed and many action stars (Van Damme and Seagal among them) were forced off the big screens. And yet, for a time, their action films were glorious... and cheesy.

Timecop, released in 1994, is peak Van Damme in all the best, and worst, ways. It's a silly action movie trifle that basically could have only come out in the mid-1990s. Based on a comic (Timecop, written by Mike Richardson and Mark Verheiden, published in 1992), it has the trademarks of that era's film making: silly action, goofy one-liners, and bad CGI. And yet, if you can get into the film there's no denying that is its one absolutely enjoyable, cheeseball of a film. Not good, no, but undoubtedly watchable time and again.

Van Damme stars as Agent Max Walker, who works for the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC), policing threats to the timeline. As explained in the film, you can't go to the future because that hasn't been written yet, but you can go to the past and make any changes you want. However, changes will have ripples, and there are any number of unpredictable permutations that can occur. That's what the TEC exists, to make sure no one does anything that irrevocably changes the present.

The only issue is that one man, Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), wants to shut the TEC down. He feels like their oversight on the timeline is costly and unnecessary. He may also, as Max suspects, be making changes to the timeline so that he can ensure his own presidential hopes. When a disturbance is detected in the timeline, Max, along with new partner (and Internal Affairs detective) Agent Sarah Fielding (Gloria Reuben), have to go back to 1994 to stop the ripples. There they find proof that the senator is behind the disturbances on the timeline, and Max will have to find a way to stop him once and for all... and he might just find a way to save his wife, Melissa (Mia Sara), who died in 1994 as well.

Let's be clear, Timecop is an absolute mess of a movie, in all regards. We have to start with the story, which is just as sloppy as it can be. The film makes up its rules for time travel as it goes along, necessitated not by the bounds of the story but what would be cool as a thrilling action sequence. Characters info-dump new rules at us regularly just to hand-wave away whatever dumb thing is about to happen next. It's noticeable, but there's no denying that the fun crap that happens afterwards is, well, fun.

By the same measure, the "future" predicted by this movie is laughably bad. Bear in mind, the movie takes place in 2004, and was made in 1994, so they tried to "update" the tech for what they thought ten years in the future would look like. They had ideas for self-driving cars and full house automation, things we haven't even gotten to now in 2023. But the laughable part is the way it looks, with everything having this very chunk, 1990s vibe to its "future" tech. It reminds me of so many movies from the 1970s that were set in "the future" but everything looks so awfully 1970s. It's like that.

Meanwhile, the actual dialogue is awful as well. All too often the movie devolves into the standard action movie "repartee" that was common then and got tiresome soon after. Any time Van Damme kills a guy, he has to say something witty, like a dude getting blasted by fifty thousand volts and his character saying something like, "that was a shock." Line after line of cheese comes forth, just like that. It doesn't really make him a character, just this weird joke machine, so even with a "tragic back story", Max never really emerges as a character.

And you know what? None of that matters. It really doesn't. Van Damme has made some bad movies, and legitimately his bad movies (like Street Fighter) aren't that far removed from most of his good ones. There's generally this 1990s-level of cheese on all of them. But it's the conviction, and the action, that really sells it. Here, Van Damme is in it as Max, giving his character soulfulness that his dialogue lacks. I would normally not accuse Van Damme of being a good actor, and it's not like he's fantastic here, but he has the chops to at least sell the darkness of Max, and that's enough to help the film along.

Plus, yes, the action is at times legitimately good. Not all of it is great, with plenty of scenes that are chopped up by bad editing and obscured footage. But the moments when Van Damme can let loose and do his thing are great. Plus, for those of you at home tabulating all of his "let's do the splits" moments in films, he has two here. One to delivery a punch to a groin, and another later when he jumps up on a counter to avoid getting shocked and does the splits in mid air to balance himself. It's so dumb, but so great.

Look, Timecop isn't a good movie. It is, however, a very fun movie. It has its cheese but it wears it right, with the proper level of conviction such that even with bad effects, bad future sense, and bad dialogue, it still manages to sell its world. It's the right kind of cheese for the era, and if you can enjoy 1990s action films then this will hit just so. It's bad, but good, in all the ways you want from action of that era. That puts it high on the list of Van Damme films, that silly action movie that's still worth watching all these years later.