'Timecop' is the best film Jean-Claude Van Damme ever made. Of course, considering that his cinematic canon is littered with such C-grade stinkers as 'Bloodsport,' 'Cyborg,' 'Kickboxer' and 'Death Warrant,' that’s not exactly high praise. But of all of the cheesy and derivative action flicks that the "muscles from Brussels" starred in during his brief '90s reign as the poor man's Arnold Schwarzenegger, 'Timecop' is the least cheesy and least derivative.
Even those less familiar with the sci-fi genre will recognize the story of 'Timecop' as a mishmash (read: rip-off) of 'Blade Runner,' 'Minority Report' and every other story Philip K. Dick ever wrote. Van Damme stars as Max Walker, a "timecop" from the future who is part of a special government force implemented to capture criminals through the use of time travel. After his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) is murdered, Walker will go back in time to unravel the mystery of his wife's death, while evading the covert factions who want him dead before he exposes the truth.
Like James Cameron’s far-superior 'The Terminator,' 'Timecop' uses a gooey romance to give resonance to what is otherwise a standard-issue action thriller. The difference, of course, is that we cared about the characters and the relationships in 'The Terminator,' while in ‘Timecop’ the melodrama has about as much gravity as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie-of-the-week. Van Damme admirably attempts to stretch his acting (ahem) muscles, and Sara is pretty to look at, but they don't generate anywhere near the chemistry or passion of the Linda Hamilton-Michael Biehn pairing in 'Terminator.' Add to that a totally boring villain (Ron Silver) who looks more like a banker than a madman, and on paper, there is little to distinguish 'Timecop' above most other of Van Damme's direct-to-video disasters.
Having said all that, as an action B-flick, 'Timecop' isn't bad. The film was directed by Peter Hyams, who has created quite a career for himself taking films that should have gone straight to video, and somehow convincing the studios to lavish tens of millions of dollars on them ('The Relic,' 'End of Days'). Although 'Timecop' doesn't have a blockbuster budget, Universal did pump enough money into its wobbly premise that Hyams is able to give it a slick sheen and some decent setpieces. The lighting is fairly stylish, the editing quite tight, and all of the performances (if largely unmemorable) are at least appropriate to the material.
And to his credit, despite all of the punchlines he’s generated over the years, Van Damme is a likable-enough action star. In addition to his usual fight routines, he easily handles the film’s gunplay, and appears to be energized by the belief that 'Timecop' might finally be his ticket into the big leagues. Unlike the more egotistical Schwarzeneggers and Sylvester Stallones of the world, Van Damme doesn't grate on the nerves with smug condescension, and seems to at least try to take the romance stuff seriously. It also doesn’t hurt that Van Damme was slighter of build than his other action-movie contemporaries, so when he's in the thick of danger, it’s slightly more believable.
Of course, none of this makes 'Timecop' a particularly good movie. Silly and totally predictable, the film never generates enough empathy for the romantic predicament of its hero, leaving the audience with little to do but watch the action. But at least on that level, it's a fun, nostalgic slice of '90s inanity, and is certainly the best case for why Van Damme deserved a legitimate shot at Hollywood superstardom. As we know now, he never quite got there, but if only one film could be etched on his cinematic tombstone it would be 'Timecop.'
'Timecop' on HD DVD gave me a bit of a jolt. Given Universal's sometimes spotty record with its catalog HD DVD releases, I wasn't expecting much from this one, but it really looks quite good. 'Timecop' is still a marginal title and not a true demo disc, but this is a more than respectable remaster from a studio whose strong suit has never been consistency.
Presented in 1080p/VC-1 video, the source material has been nicely preserved. There is some grain, but the lack of dirt and blemishes is a nice surprise for a now 13 year-old flick. Colors are well-saturated but not overdone, giving the film a nice eye-popping look with very little noise or bleeding. Detail is considerable -- especially in close-ups --which exhibit strong realism to textures and fleshtones. The transfer is also consistently sharp (although still slightly soft by the today's standards), and in a welcome change for Universal, there’s no obnoxious edge enhancement.
On the not-so-bright side, the presentation does suffer from heavy black crush. Shadow delineation is quite steep, so while the image "pops," it lacks fine details in dark areas of the picture. There is also some noise in solid patches of color (such as skies). Still, these are fairly minor quibbles –- overall this high-def transfer for 'Timecop' is really quite impressive.
Alas, Universal is not able to deliver quite as much of a bang with this disc’s Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track (in English and French, both 1.5mbps).
'Timecop' may have been produced in 1994, but it sounds more like 1984. The dynamics are dated and flat, especially the lack of low bass extension and the dull, lifeless highs. Surround use is sporadic, and reserved primarily for bursts of wimpy discrete sounds during "explosive" moments. No other element of the presentation stands out -- not dialogue (which is cleanly recorded but flatly balanced in the mix) nor the rote action score by Mark Isham, which is directed almost solely to the front channels.
To be fair, 'Timecop' is certainly listenable, but never anything more than that.
Sorry, cult of Van Damme -- there are no extras here, not even a theatrical trailer.
'Timecop' is highly derivative of other time travel epics like 'Terminator,' but Jean-Claude Van Damme is no Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the film's attempts at romance fall flat. Still, on the level of a B-grade action yarn, the best of Van Damme’s flicks is fairly satisfying. This HD DVD boasts a surprisingly strong video transfer, but the audio is less noteworthy and there is not a single extra. Unless you’re a die-hard fan of the film, this one’s probably best confined to your Netflix queue.