Knock Off (1998)

I love action movies with completely nonsensical, ridiculous plots that exist purely to put some completely miscast action star directly in the path of danger, possibly alongside an equally miscast comedian in a sidekick role. Lo and behold, here’s exactly what I want in a film: Knock Off.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is a member of the Hong Kong counterfeit clothing scene that has been looking to go clean, so he’s ended up working for V-Six Jeans alongside Rob Schneider. Unfortunately, the Russian government is trying to use counterfeit goods to install nanobombs all throughout the United States via home goods, toys, and clothing. As V-Six Jeans is one of the targets for counterfeiting, a very annoyed corporate executive, Lela Rochon, arrives to give Van Damme and Schneider a thorough chewing out about the fake products making it to US shores. But the nanobombs are being installed via the help of Van Damme’s old friends in Hong Kong organized crime, while Schneider is secretly a CIA agent investigating Russia’s intentions. And Rochon? She’s another CIA spy sent to find out who in the wing Schneider works for is secretly corrupt and working with the Russians. Add in a Hong Kong supercop, Michael Fitzgerald Wong, and you get street fights, gun battles in ships, a nasty warehouse knife fight, and a whole slew of green explosions, all with ridiculous timing, incredible effects, and the full acting chops of Van Damme and Schneider finally together.

I love the movies. They can make a guy like Rob Schneider into a spy and then make a straight-faced attempt at this being remotely plausible. It’s not. It’s as believable as basically every other Schneider role, whether he’s playing a not-believable male prostitute or a not-believable gay man or a not-believable and definitely offensive ethnic stereotype. Frankly, his most believable role was as a bellhop in Home Alone 2, because that’s exactly the kind of job he seems perfect for. Yet somehow we got him in two Sylvester Stallone movies (Demolition Man and Judge Dredd) and a Van Damme martial arts flick in the 1990s. It was an amazing decade for movie magic.

That said, Knock Off is a ridiculous movie that still features some interesting fight scenes, even if it completely falls flat when it comes to general believability. There is a rickshaw race early on that features Van Damme’s counterfeit shoes falling apart, but it ends with a shoot out and fist fight in a wrecked market that’s pretty awesome. As I’m watching this fight scene though, there is a strange mixture of rapid combat and slapstick comedic timing that feels familiar, and upon seeing the credits I understand why: this film was directed by Tsui Hark.

Tsui Hark, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is a Hong Kong director, writer, producer, and so on who has won numerous awards and created some of the most famous films of Hong Kong cinema. Once Upon a Time in China, Black Mask, A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and A Chinese Ghost Story are all movies he has had a hand in, either directing, producing, or writing. He’s worked with major actors like Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan, Ti Lung, and Donnie Yen. His writing and production work has been alongside directors like John Woo, Yuen Woo-ping, Ching Siu-tung, and Raymond Lee. He even appeared as an actor in Sammo Hung’s film Heart of Dragon.

Tsui Hark is basically a legend, and discussing his impact on Hong Kong cinema is like discussing the impact John Ford had on American cinema. Even if you don’t know his movies directly, you’ve felt his mark, and watching Knock Off immediately seemed familiar because I’m a fan of his work who hadn’t spent much time with his short lived mid-90s America phase. Why not? Because it mainly consists of only two films, both of which star Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the other of which is Double Team with Dennis Rodman, and I have no words which could ever express how fantastic an idea it was to pair Van Damme with Rodman at the height of his 1990s Chicago Bulls craziness. Truly, Tsui Hark’s filmography is a gift from the gods.

Of course, Knock Off didn’t do well. It had limited success, only earning $44 million at the box office worldwide on a budget of $35 million. It had far less critical success, with the Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer currently sitting at a whopping 8%. Basically only film critic Kevin Thomas liked it, and he likes pretty much everything.

So why should you watch this movie? Because where else are you going to find Van Damme pulling a rickshaw with Rob Schneider in it while his counterfeit ‘PUMMA’ sneakers fall apart? Where else can you see Schneider and Van Damme rock so many Hawaiian shirts? Where else will you see a guy open a safe only to get hit in the chest by a literal missile?

And the best part? All of this is going on during the handover of Hong Kong from the British government to China. Yes, this film has historical and political gravitas, because it takes place during a vital time in the history of multiple world components: the city of Hong Kong, the end of Western colonization in East Asia, the waning finale of the British Empire, China’s reclamation of territory ceded 150 years prior. Knock Off is how we’ll be teaching our children’s children about this critical moment in history, while they also get the joy of watching Van Damme and Schneider comically rip fake jeans in half. Or watch Lela Rochon seduce Rob Schneider, because that’s something I wanted imprinted on my brain.

Look, again, if you prefer your movies horribly miscast, with loads of action and comedy that might float your boat, only to then blow up said boat in the climactic finale, then yeah, Knock Off may be for you. However, if you prefer your movies not to leave you clutching the sides of your head, wondering what fresh new horror this is unfolding before your very eyes, then Knock Off is probably not going to be your cup of tea. Either way, I certainly enjoyed it for the ridiculousness that it is.

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