The last blast of the summer is an exuberantly cheesy action opus featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Rob Schneider as an improbable pair of gung-ho heroes. At once artfully stylized and brazenly junky, the aptly titled “Knock Off” is a perfunctorily Westernized version of a rock-the-house Hong Kong B-movie. Surprisingly enough, the pic actually gets better as it goes along, thanks in large measure to the pell-mell pacing and quick-cut pizzazz of Tsui Hark, the cult-fave HK filmmaker who also guided Van Damme through the rigors of “Double Team.” Expect so-so domestic B.O., slightly better overseas biz and an extended afterlife in ancillary venues.
Van Damme and Schneider play business partners who run the Hong Kong branch of V-Six, a designer-label blue jeans company. In a modestly clever plot twist, it’s revealed that Schneider, not Van Damme, is a deep-cover CIA operative. To be sure, Van Damme is, as usual, cast as a fleet-footed martial artist. But his character, Marcus Ray, is strictly a civilian when it comes to matters of international intrigue.
To be sure, Marcus does have a checkered past. Not so long ago, he dabbled in the dirty business of manufacturing and exporting “knock-off” copies of brand name merchandise. Tommy Hendricks (Schneider) offered him a chance to go legit, and he jumped at the opportunity. But Marcus continues to have close friends in the knock-off underground — including, first and foremost, his adoptive brother, Eddie (Wyman Wong).
Unfortunately, Eddie is involved with the smuggling of a miniaturized explosive devices that are only slightly larger than wristwatch batteries. Even more unfortunately, Marcus finds himself torn between his friendship for Tommy and his loyalty to Eddie when all hell breaks loose in Hong Kong just before the 1997 transfer of the former British colony. Chinese gangsters, Russian Mafioso, British Colonial police inspectors and American intelligence agents add to the confusion and mayhem.
Working from a formulaic script by Steven E. De Souza, Hark employs a variety of visual stratagems to keep the action fast and flashy. Some scenes are stylized to the point of abstraction, while others are compressed or extended by rapid-fire adjustments in film speed. Almost a quarter of the pic is devoted to a near-surreal shoot-out aboard a freighter loaded with dangerous contraband.
All of which would be even more impressive if “Knock Off” made more sense. Trouble is, the plot is thoroughly muddled, making it difficult, if not impossible, for an audience to keep up with the shifting of allegiances and the revelations of motivation. Hark does little to make “Knock Off” easy to understand, but he bends over backward to make it worth watching.
Without straying too far from the motor-mouth shtick that is his trademark as a TV comic actor (“Saturday Night Live,” “Men Behaving Badly”), Schneider is amusingly effective in his cast-against-type role. And while he does more wisecracking than head-smashing, he even manages to handle a fair share of rough stuff. He also develops an edgy give-and-take with Van Damme, particularly when they participate in a weirdly wacky rickshaw race.
Van Damme is at the top of his form in the rock-’em, sock-’em sequences, even though he does slightly less bone-crushing than might be expected. Better still, he comes across as slightly more animated and engaging than usual in the scenes that don’t call for acrobatic butt-kicking.
Lela Rochon does some serious butt-kicking of her own as a V-Six troubleshooter who — surprise, surprise! — isn’t all that she seems. Other supporting players of note include Paul Sorvino as a stern-faced CIA chief and Michael Fitzgerald Wong as a Hong Kong supercop. Production values are not exactly world-class — the explosions look chintzy and the cinematography is drab — but Mak Chi Sin’s editing is razor-sharp.