Working with cult Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark no doubt represents a step in the right direction for Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose last several movies were rather tedious and commercially tepid. In his new, James Bondish hodgepodge, “Double Team,” Van Damme surrounds himself with a flamboyant buddy, NBA star Dennis Rodman, and a sleazy villain, played with relish by Mickey Rourke. Shrewdly made with an eye for the global market, where the Belgian star is more of a draw than he is Stateside, pic features visually exciting set pieces in alluring tourist sites, putting the audience in a pleasantly mindless state of disbelief. Columbia should do above-average business with this action-packed, often campy and colorful amusement park of a movie.
Selecting hot and innovative directors is one thing, but Van Damme hasn’t been very discriminating in choosing material to display his considerable martial arts skills. Don Jakoby and Paul Mones’ script is a desperate mishmash, combining elements of international anti-terrorist espionage, high-tech penal colony conflict and an action hero whose chief motivation is to reunite with his wife and newborn son.
Wild chases occur everywhere — land, air and sea — and the climax, set in the Roman Coliseum, unabashedly mixes such elements as a mine field, a baby in peril and a menacing Bengal tiger.
Cliche-ridden yarn stays completely within the conventions of actioners. Jack Quinn (Van Damme) is the reluctant hero, a top counter-terrorist who wishes to quit the spy game and settle into blissful domesticity. On the eve of his final mission, he misses his target — the terrorist Stavros (Rourke) — and as a punishment is sent to the Colony, a “think tank” for spies who are too dangerous to be set free, but too worthwhile to kill.
Stavros, who in an earlier confrontation lost his son, vows to take vengeance on Quinn’s pregnant wife (and, later, his newborn child). In an unlikely turn of events, Quinn joins forces with Yaz (Rodman), an ostentatious weapons dealer who, tough as he is, sports brightly dyed hair, big earrings, colorful tattoos and piercings. In the manner of most actioners, the bizarre duo form their own army, insisting that they don’t belong to any nation and don’t play by the rules.
Making his American debut, Hark is deservedly one of the most acclaimed Hong Kong filmmakers, with over 50 features to his credit, including the international hits “A Better Tomorrow,” “Peking Opera Blues” and “Once Upon a Time in China.”
He has no problem applying his specialty — kaleidoscopic, kinetic adventure marked by frenzied action and tongue-in-cheek tone — to this picture, but he seems stranded by its formulaic constraints. As a result, “Double Team” becomes a marathon of destructive effects and stock characters, wobbling between high-adrenaline bang-bang and wan slapstick, with a lot of bad moments in between.
The multi-colored, multi-accented cast considerably helps overcome the routine components. At home in the center of a movie that is simultaneously an actioner, pulp fiction and comic book, Van Damme delivers a stronger and more vibrant performance than in his last couple of outings.
Media sensation Rodman gets most of the funny lines, which he spouts with abundant ease. As the deadly mercenary, Rourke, who hasn’t been seen in a high-profile American movie in some time, takes his job a tad too seriously, making for a hatefully seedy villain of the old school.
Beautiful French actress Natacha Lindinger has nothing to do but smile as Quinn’s wife, and later express fear when captured by Stavros. Paul Freeman, as the Colony guardian; Jay Benedict, as Quinn’s CIA boss; and boxing champion Rob Diem, as another exiled terrorist, add much necessary shading to the proceedings.
Physically, the movie is more impressive than previous Van Damme enterprises, including “Hard Target,” which was helmed by Hong Kong master (and Hark rival) John Woo. Marek Dobrowolski’s picturesque production design, Peter Pau’s sharp widescreen lensing of carefully chosen international locations and, above all, editor Bill Pankow’s highly energetic pacing contribute to an intermittently diverting movie, in which the exhilarating action (designed by stunt coordinator Charles Picerni) amounts to no more than 20 minutes of the running time but may be worth the price of admission.