Despite a marketable concept and first-rate production values, director Peter Hyams delivers a curiously flat sci-fi comic-book actioner starring the ever limber Jean-Claude Van Damme. While an eye-catching trailer and plenty of fancy footwork for Van Damme fans suggest a strong opening, “Timecop” seems unlikely to cross over beyond that audience and get more casual genre fans to give it the time of day.
That’s a disappointment for those who harbored high expectations for the movie, especially after the strong summer haul by Dark Horse Entertainment’s previous creation, “The Mask.”
Like most time-travel stories, this one must grapple with the usual absurdities and contradictions about changing the past to affect the present — a head-scratcher that certainly didn’t inhibit the enjoyability of the “Terminator” movies, from which the filmmakers have obviously drawn some inspiration.
Still, for the most part, Hyams’ lackluster direction and the repetitive quality of the action sequences squander an intriguing premise and impressive production design, leaving few moments that elicit the sort of “Wow!” response such fare needs in order to prosper.
Van Damme plays Max Walker, a D.C. cop whose wife (Mia Sara) is apparently murdered in an explosion. Ten years later, in 2004, we find Walker functioning as a “timecop,” policing those who have gone back in time to strike it rich or influence the course of history.
Walker busts his former partner, for example, trying to cash in on the Depression, in the process discovering that the real mastermind behind the time-crime wave is the U.S. senator (Ron Silver) responsible for overseeing the enforcement program — a slick operator seeking to use his ill-gotten gains to finance a run for the presidency.
That crisscrossing, cat-and-mouse chase through time has its moments, but the script by comic creator Mark Verheiden (from a story crafted with exec producer Mike Richardson) has a hard time connecting the strands. In the same vein, while there’s no shortage of mayhem, the time-traveling conundrum actually ends up deadening the movie’s suspense, since the playing field and stakes keep changing.
Strictly in terms of the action, Hyams milks the fight scenes too long (how many kicks to the face can one person take?), drawing out sequence after sequence in which someone walks down a corridor waiting to get rapped over the head.
In addition, Hyams (who, as usual, functioned as his own cinematographer) too often ends up shooting action sequences in the dark, filming one brawl in a driving rainstorm so murky it’s difficult to keep track of who’s pum-meling whom.
The same largely goes for the movie’s particular sci-fi rules, with talk about the ramifications of altering the past seemingly tossed aside as soon as those guidelines become inconvenient. Verheiden does provide a few clever quips and twists in his screenplay, but nothing to match the closing-credit flourish of playing the song “Time Won’t Let Me.”
Van Damme acquits himself well, though the more acting he gets to do the more violence his accent inflicts on the English language. Silver proves a glib but not particularly menacing villain through no fault of his own, while Sara and newcomer Gloria Reuben are attractive if sparsely used as the female leads.
Aside from Van Damme’s calisthenics, pic’s principal attributes are its special effects and visual style, including a ripple-like wave caused as travelers pop in and out of time. But the technique bears a striking resemblance to the liquid cyborg in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” somewhat diminishing its impact.