Monday, March 25, 2024

Heavy Action: DOUBLE TEAM

by Patrick Bromley
I learned my lesson with this one.

The release of Tsui Hark's Double Team was a big deal to me in 1997. Like all teenage Action Boys, I was a huge fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme in the '90s. Mickey Rourke, at that time among my favorite actors, was set to play the villain. Most importantly, though, was the casting of Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman as Yaz, an eccentric arms dealer and the other half of the titular "double team." As a born and bred Chicagoan, I was required by law to be a huge Bulls fan during their dynasty era (era) when they won six championships in almost as many years. While I had been a fan of Dennis Rodman during his days as a Detroit Piston, they were seen by us Bulls fans as villainous, dirty players. Liking him felt like a betrayal. Once he joined the Bulls, though, I felt comfortable naming him as my favorite on the team. I had a Dennis Rodman t-shirt. I proudly bought and read his autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be. I tuned in to every Bulls game to watch him grabbing rebounds and followed his off-court exploits with great attention. I was about as big a Dennis Rodman fan as there was.
In spite of all this, I wasn't crazy about Double Team when I was it in theaters in 1997. I found it too goofy, too silly, too outlandish. My understanding of Hong Kong-influenced cinema was harder edged and gritter, John Woo making Hard Target, not whatever director Tsui Hark was doing in Double Team. Revisiting the movie in 2024, I can see that I was in the wrong and that this movie is pretty much exactly what it wants to be. I wasn't well enough versed in Hong Kong cinema in 1997 to appreciate what Tsui was going for. I still won't pretend to know Hong Kong action movies as well as, say, friend of the site Michael Scott or his Action 4 Everyone peeps, but I've at least seen enough now that I can put Double Team into the proper context. If it came dubbed and starred Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, I'd be hailing it as a '90s classic, so why should I hold the American elements against it -- especially when I like all of the stars?

Retired anti-terrorist agent Jack Quinn (JCVD) is called back into action when his Number One Op, a terrorist named Stavros (Mickey Rourke) is discovered to still be plotting some world-ending shit. During a showdown at an amusement park (and then a hospital), Stavros' son is killed and Jack is knocked unconscious by an explosion. When he awakens, he's on a remote island called The Colony, a kind of prison for former agents who are dead to the world. Learning that Stavros has captured his pregnant wife, Jack escapes The Colony and teams with eccentric arms deal Yaz (Rodman) to travel to Rome to defeat Stavros once and for all.
Double Team is a mess. The plot is pasted together with ADRd dialogue, the effects are dodgy (especially the explosions...Coke, anyone?), and the plotting is episodic and downright nonsensical. I should not consider these strikes agains the movie, however. I'm trying to be the Shepherd. The movie has too much going for it to let a little thing like flaws get in the way of my enjoyment. Like Dennis Rodman, Double Team is too colorful and has too much personality to be ignored. It's over the top in the right ways, embracing excess and goofiness without really trying to be explicitly funny. I'm not the kind of person who just names shit that happens to be in a movie as reasons to like it -- the Snakes on a Plane defense --  but if I can't enjoy a movie in which Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman rides a motorcycle around a mine-filled Colosseum while Mickey Rourke and Jean-Claude Van Damme fist fight in the presence of a vicious tiger, I'm for sure the problem.

As much as I've learned to appreciate the movie, I can't say the same for Van Damme's performance. Maybe it's me, but he seems kind of miserable. There's a playfulness to many of his best performances -- a self-aware willingness not to take himself to seriously in stuff like Double Impact or Enemies Closer. When he does do brooding and dour in Nowhere to Run or the amazing Universal Soldier sequels, it fits the material. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, JCVD has a real knack for knowing just what movie he's in and pitching his performance accordingly. Double Team might be the exception, because the movie around him is insane but he insists he's doing Bergman. Actually, that's not even fair; I'm not sure he's "serious" so much as he is "sleepy." Maybe he was still in the throes of the substance problems I know he battled in the '90s. Maybe he was just truly exhausted, having starred in and directed his first film (The Quest) the year prior, as well as doing an arc on Friends and starring in Maximum Risk. That's a lot! I'd make a case that he didn't enjoy the experience of making the movie but he reunited with Tusi a year later to make Knock Off, so it couldn't have been all bad. I know I've made this point before, but it deserves to be mentioned that Van Damme brought John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Ringo Lam all to America to make their first films here. Dude helped change the landscape of action movies forever and doesn't often get the credit for it.
Dennis Rodman, on the other hands, seems to be having a great time in Double Team. He's not what one would call a natural actor, but he has some presence and appears to be enjoying himself getting the opportunity to star in a movie, which is charming and goes a long way towards endearing me to Yaz. I'll admit I don't fully understand the character he's playing, as his arms dealer appears to have undergone an extensive "Dennis Rodman" rewrite once the athlete was cast and so much of his dialogue references basketball or his career on the court. Even the last line of the movie finds Yaz asking "how much he'll get fined for this one," a common occurrence back in his days on the Bulls. The lines blur in a very weird way, and that's the stuff that hasn't dated well because you really have to understand who Rodman was in 1997 to appreciate some of the references. Even as a huge fan, I think that was the stuff that had me rolling my eyes the most when I first saw the movie. Now I just see it as a quaint little byproduct of its time.

Despite his reputation for being difficult and irresponsible, the execs at Sony must have had a good enough experience making Double Team with Rodman because they brought him back just a year later for his own starring vehicle, the little-seen (including by me!) Simon Sez. Originally set to be directed by Ringo Lam -- another Hong Kong action filmmaker Van Damme brought to the U.S. -- it instead wound up being the feature directorial debut of Kevin Alyn Elders, the writer behind the Iron Eagle trilogy. Naturally I'm in the process of tracking down a copy for a future column, but I don't have my hopes up. Let me know if I'm wrong.
I have a personal rule: never give up on a movie. As film fans, we are always changing, always learning, always growing. I have little patience for people whose ideas about movies are binary or who have limited ideas of what a "good" movie can be because they're closing themselves off to practically limitless possibilities. If I was that kind of movie fan, I never would have given Double Team another chance and never would have realized that the reason I disliked it at 20 was because I lacked the capacity to appreciate what it's trying to do. Am I saying it's an especially sophisticated movie? No. But I dismissed it at one point in my life because I wasn't taking it on its intended terms, and that matters. I'm always trying to learn how to open my mind more and be a better movie fan. If Double Team helps me to get there, it has tremendous a tiger and Dennis Rodman.

1 comment:

  1. I'm late in commenting on this but I absolutely adore Double Team, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts from then and now on it. This is an absurd movie that has so many fun elements and I couldn't tell you the plot even if I watched it five minutes ago but I can tell you that I laughed and had a good time.

    Great article as always, Patrick! :)