Okay, the movie: Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a businessman in Hong Kong who, along with partner Rob Schneider, has been making and selling cheap knock-off products of popular items (shoes, watches, shirts). After his buddy gets kidnapped, Van Damme enters a world of deceit and double-crosses. Turns out Van Damme's partner is undercover CIA, and they've been funding Van Damme in order to get closer to finding out who's been shipping out cheap knock-off crap lined with powerful explosives. Yup, someone is actually plannning on blackmailing the U.S. by seeding it with explosive blue jeans. The threat to civilization is someone blowing up your pants.
This film is directed by the Tsui Hark, the Hong Kong saint/devil who's directed a slew of classic H.K. movies and sharing responsibility for a handful of others (and first assistant director is equally legendary Sammo Hung). Here, Tsui does for the international action movie what Seijun Suzuki did for the Yakuza film of the '60's; simultaneously parodies and trumps it in an onslaught of style. Whole action scenes are fragmented and blurred; standard cimeatic conventions are relentlessly over-executed; special effects are executed with a deliberate flatness to show off their fakeness (the micro-button explosions are spectacularly fake). And believe it or not, there's a bit of subtext to Knock-Off, with prima-donnish but loyal Van Damme longing to be taken seriously in the world of business, to become legitimate. It's actually a valid desire for Jean-Claude, and for Tsui now, as well; but Tsui plays it for laughs. Addtionally, since the movie is set on day of the transition of Hong Kong back to China, the nonsensical plot of the Russian mafia using Hong Kong's exports for their own nefarious products is a very, very concealed way of dealing with anxiety over how Hong Kong will be used by mainland China after the handover. For many international businessmen, the concern that China will be easier able to flood world markets with cheap crap (bomb-implanted or not) is very real. For Tsui, I expect that his anxiety is more over watching how Hong Kong will be used to take the heat for being a pawn in the whole scheme (kinda like Van Damme's character in the movie, yeah, that's the ticket).
The title Knock Off is supposed to sound like Woo's Face/Off, and indeed, with its over-the-top action, fetishization of Hong Kong, plethora of gun crazy minor characters and double-crosses may indeed be a cheap, crappy knock-off of Woo, much like the "Pumma" tennis shoes that Van Damme's character specializes in churning out. I still haven't mentioned the joys of Paul Sorvino snarling lines like "free enterprise, babycakes!" or Michael Fitzgerald Wong as the squeaky-voiced back-up action hero, or Lela Rochon kicking ass and being so overmanufacturedly feminine as to even now make me suspect she's actually a drag queen. Hell, even Rob Scheider I kind of liked; he and Van Damme have a cartoon-buddy friendship that was actually kind of affecting for me. This movie was the first of four action movies I saw in the theaters on one day, and bits and pieces of it came recurring even while I was watching new explosions.
In short, this movie bodes well for being the high camp classic of '98, and may be well compared to Welles' The Lady From Shanghai in future years. I say it check it out if you want to see now what the smart-ass rep houses will be showing in 2010. You may be appalled, but never bored.