Adapted from the pages of a Dark Horses Comics series, 1994’s Timecop essentially uses the same type of formula applied to Total Recall: put a popular action star into a science fiction setting, add a few plot twists, and give the action star all the leeway he needs to blast and punch his way out of trouble. A futuristic time travel cop action-thriller produced by Sam Raimi and Robert Rapert (of Evil Dead fame), Timecop ranks among the best films of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s filmography, not to mention it is to date his highest grossing theatrical release (earning over $100 million worldwide). With that said though, the film only works as a primal shoot-’em-up slice of action cinema and a guilty pleasure best watched with alcohol. Viewed as a serious futuristic time travel movie, on the other hand, Timecop has some fairly glaring issues.
In 1994, time travel has become possible thanks to new scientific breakthroughs. Travelling into the future cannot be done yet, but travelling into the past has become a reality, and with that reality comes the very real danger of the past being manipulated to alter present-day. In order to maintain the status quo, the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) is established by the government, sponsored by young hotshot Senator McComb (Silver) who immediately sees the potential for wielding control over the TEC and using time travel for his personal benefit. Enter Max Walker (Van Damme), who works at the agency but whose wife was murdered in 1994 by a group of assailants. Fast-forward to 2004, and Walker learns that Senator McComb is manipulating time in order to amass the necessary funds to buy the Presidency, all the while working to permanently shut down TEC.
If one strips away the time travelling tomfoolery, Timecop is merely a typical Van Damme action flick. With the sci-fi element, though, the film becomes both stupider and a bit more audacious than a more run-of-the-mill effort. See, any film involving time travel is inherently traversing precarious ground, and Timecop is no different – it’s marred by a few plot holes and stupidities. For instance, there are no noticeable effects on present-day when Walker travels back to 1928 to kick ass, dodge bullets fired from a futuristic laser canon in front of a lot of people, and leap out a window only to disappear into a wormhole above a busy street. In another scene, a character explains that Confederate gold bullion stolen from the past was carbon-dated to reveal that it was indeed minted back in the mid-1800s. Aside from the fast that gold cannot be tested this way, if it was brought forward through time then it would not test as being 130 years old, right? How does that make sense? And then there is the time travel shuttle launcher which seems to be half though-out. How do the time travellers leave the rocket when they pass through the time portal, but magically reappear in it upon returning to the present? At least the writers did not attempt to explain the science of time travel, which would’ve sounded ridiculous.
Directed by Peter Hyams and written by Mike Richardson and Mark Verheiden, Timecop is a derivative but entertaining action diversion, and, at a lean 90 minutes in length, it does not outstay its welcome. Ultimately, how much you enjoy the film depends on your fondness for Van Damme (and action movies in general) as well as your ability to turn off your brain for the sake of action and some nifty story twists. Thankfully, director Peter Hyams makes it easy to enjoy the carnage at surface level, as the movie shifts forward at a good pace and there are plenty of competently-executed action sequences unlikely to put anyone to sleep. Hyams saw the movie for what it is – an excuse for plenty of fighting, stunts, special effects and gunfights. Someone like James Cameron could have probably taken both the action/effects and the story seriously enough to hone the concept to excellent, but Timecop is fun for what it is, and over-thinking the film too much would destroy the effortless pleasures it affords. Interestingly, time has not been kind to several of the film’s less critical components, such as the hilariously overblown futuristic cars and Van Damme’s hairdo.
Jean-Claude Van Damme did not become famous for his acting ability or his thick Belgian accent. Rather, the Muscles from Brussels earned worldwide recognition for his kickboxing abilities, good looks and muscular physique. Fortunately, Van Damme’s work here is actually decent; easily watchable, and at no point notably terrible. He lacks the presence of someone like Charles Bronson, but Van Damme exudes more charisma than someone like Steven Seagal. And as the villain of Timecop, Ron Silver is menacing enough and exudes an adequate amount of intensity. The only other notable cast members include Mia Sara (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) who’s surprisingly terrific as Walker’s wife, and an affable Bruce McGill playing the head of TEC. As a side note, whoever did the hair and make-up gets major plaudits for doing a sublime job of making the 2004 versions of the characters look older than their 1994 counterparts. (Or maybe the actors were made to look younger? It’s hard to tell!)
All things considered, Timecop is a fun little reminder of how action films were created back in the early 1990s. The film is carefully calculated to deliver plenty of action, sex, nudity and special effects in every reel, and Timecop is a slickly-produced actioner to boot. If you can engage the film for its duration without the pretence of greatness, this is a fun time-waster. It’s definitely cheesy, but this merely adds to its old-school charm.