One of the legendary names of the Hong Kong film industry is Tsui Hark (pronounced 'Choy Hok'). This Vietnam-born director/producer has often been labeled as the 'Steven Spielberg of Asian cinema', a man who has had a profound effect on the look of Hong Kong action and fantasy cinema since the release of his first feature film, "Butterfly Murders". Mixing together his heritage with his film education in the United States, he brought a unique vision to Asian audiences. Unfortunately, his early exploitation films were not well-received by moviegoers, who found his atmospheric, moody, and gory offerings distasteful, which relegated them to cult status. It was not until 1983 that he had his big break and first international hit, "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain". This groundbreaking film combined Chinese mysticism, beautifully-choreographed martial arts, and stunning special effects, all in a film that boasted high production values that were foreign to the Hong Kong film industry. This fantasy epic was a true meeting of East and West, with the top martial arts choreographers working alongside some of the best special effects wizards from the United States (whose credits included "Star Wars" and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture").
However, after a falling-out with Golden Harvest, Tsui Hark decided to start his own film company, Film Workshop. In addition to serving as his own creative outlet, he wanted Film Workshop to nurture the up-and-coming film directors of Hong Kong. One of the more renowned Film Workshop alumni was directorJohn Woo, whose breakthrough hit "A Better Tomorrow" saw the light of day with Tsui Hark serving as producer. For the latter half of the Eighties and well into the Nineties, Tsui Hark continued to exert his influence on Hong Kong cinema, imbibing his trademark style into the numerous 'Hong Kong New Wave' films he produced, including John Woo's "The Killer" and Ching Siu-tung's "A Chinese Ghost Story". On the directing side, Tsui Hark kept busy, being responsible for many New Wave classics, including the "Once Upon a Time in China" series, "Green Snake", and "Peking Opera Blues". And in addition to creating a cult following around the world, the characteristic 'Tsui Hark look' has influenced numerous Western films, including the recently-released "Blade".
In 1997, following in the footsteps of his protege John Woo, Tsui Hark came Stateside to bring his brand of action cinema to Western audiences. "Double Team", a Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman vehicle, was his first foray into American filmmaking. Despite the forgettable plot, hammy acting, and the fact that Tsui Hark wanted his name to be taken off the credits, "Double Team" was made tolerable only by Tsui Hark's intense visual stylings. He would surely redeem himself on his subsequent efforts.
Unfortunately, his second offering is not an improvement on "Double Team". In fact, it's worse. Inexplicably casting Van Damme (who makes Jet Li look like a master thespian) in the lead again, this movie is already handicapped from the get-go. This time around, 'The Muscles from Brussels' plays Marcus Ray, a flamboyant Hong Kong fashion designer with a shady history as a purveyor of counterfeit merchandise. In the days leading up to the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong back to Mainland China, Ray stumbles upon a plan by Russian terrorists (what else is new?) to disperse millions of tiny high-explosive devices. These nano-bombs, no larger than a hearing aid battery, are being placed into seemingly innocuous merchandise, such as radios, cellular phones, and even toys. With the help of his bungling business partner Tommy Hendricks (Rob Scheider), his alluring boss Karan Leigh (Lela Rochon of "The Big Hit"), a Hong Kong police detective (Michael Wong of John Woo's "Once a Thief" remake), and the CIA, Ray must stop the booby-trapped merchandise from leaving Hong Kong.
This confusing mess of a movie is a few bricks short of a load, most notably in the writing department. In addition to the atrociously lame dialogue, which is made even worse by the stilted line delivery that runs rampant in this pic, the plot is incomprehensible, with convoluted plot twists inconceivably popping up every few minutes. Instead of creating suspense in what is supposed to be a spy thriller, this flaccid actioner is more likely to induce severe bouts of eye-rolling and head-shaking. And whereas Tsui Hark's visual style was a saving grace in "Double Team", in "Knock Off", it is a liability. In choosing the gritty hyper-reality camera-work that was first seen in his 1996 wu shu drama "The Blade", Tsui Hark further increases the level of audience confusion. Though he does use some innovative camera techniques to accentuate the on-screen action, the jarring camera movement and rapid-fire cutting make it difficult to follow the action and figure out who is beating up whom. If you found "Armageddon" hard to follow because of its rapid-fire editing, then you'll be totally lost in "Knock Off".
Other than the rare moment of brilliance, there is little reason to go see this low-rent offering. And this is unfortunate, because Tsui Hark can do much better than this. Furthermore, with two flops on his hands, Tsui Hark may be persona non grata in Hollywood from now on... which is a shame, considering how much he has influenced both Asian and Western movie-making.