Time Travel Thursday: Timecop (1994)
Time travel tropes8.5
Matthew Turner | On 25, Feb 2021
Director: Peter Hyams
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mia Sara, Ron Silver, Bruce McGill, Gloria Reuben, Scott Lawrence, Scott Bellis
Watch Timecop online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / CHILI
Has Tenet whetted your appetite for more time travel titilation? Transport yourself no further than Time Travel Thursday, our column devoted to time travel movies on Amazon Prime. It’s on Thursday.
“They killed his wife 10 years ago. There’s still time to save her.” That’s the irresistible tagline for this entertaining time travel thriller that’s generally reckoned to be Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best movie. It might be nonsensical in places, but JCVD kicks plenty of ass and hey, at least it delivers on that tagline.
Directed by Peter Hyams (who subsequently reteamed with Van Damme for Sudden Death), Timecop is based on a three-part story that first appeared in the Dark Horse Comics anthology. The story begins in 1994, with the invention of time travel and the establishment of the Time Enforcement Commission (or TEC), which is deemed necessary because the technology has already fallen into the wrong hands, potentially creating ripples in time.
Shortly afterwards, beat cop Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is debating whether or not he should accept a job with the TEC, when he’s attacked and left for dead, while his wife (Mia Sara) dies when his building is blown up. Flash forward a decade and Max is now a veteran TEC Timecop, hot on the trail of suspicious Senator McComb (Ron Silver), who’s secretly abusing his access to time travel technology in order to fund a Presidential bid.
Considering the entire premise of the movie revolves around a time-travelling cop, it’s odd that the script is so inconsistent when it comes to the actual time travel. There is, indeed, a proper time machine – it looks a bit like a space shuttle and operates by jetting towards a wall before disappearing into a sort of time puddle – but it seems to just deposit people in random locations when they reach their destination and the ship itself doesn’t travel with them.
There are also smaller, handheld machines that can pop you back again, like a remote reset button or something, but none of these things are used in a way that makes any sense, particularly during the Time Trial scene, when a criminal is sentenced to death and returned to a moment where he nearly died. (Also, if you’re a Time Cop, the handheld machine returns you to the Time Shuttle, but apparently not if you’re a Time Criminal.)
Still, at least the writers thought about putting some rules in place. Apparently you can’t travel to the future because “it hasn’t happened yet”, but you can go to the past – just being careful about meeting a past version of yourself, because matter can’t occupy the same physical space. (Needless to say, that particular piece of information pays off spectacularly later on, in one of the film’s best moments.)
Part of the fun of time travel stories about the future is seeing what they got right and wrong. Fair play to Timecop on that score, because the 1994 script essentially predicts Alexa (“Play the clip”) and electronic messages as well as self-driven cars, satnav and, um, interactive porn. However, the film’s Car of the Future is hilariously awful and is very obviously just a normal car with a bulky-looking plastic shell on it.
Timecop also delivers mightily when it comes to deploying tried-and-tested time travel tropes, most notably replaying past events from different perspectives, meeting younger versions of yourself, changing the future and actions in the past having immediate visible consequences – eg. 1994 McComb getting injured and a scar appearing on 2004 McComb. It has a little fun with those ideas too, especially in the dialogue, with McComb telling his younger self to lay off the candy bars or barking at a henchman, “Never interrupt me when I’m talking to myself!”
Given that Timecop is primarily a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, it’s no real surprise that the fight scenes are the best bits. The best known highlight – the bit that even people who’ve never seen the film somehow remember – is Van Damme doing the splits in his kitchen, but the film’s actual best moment comes later on, when he kicks off a man’s frozen arm, adding “have a nice day” in a way that suggests he completely missed the joke. (He makes up for it, though, by kicking himself and muttering “I should have said freeze” in the next scene.)
There are laugh-out-loud action moments too, such as JCVD hurling himself through a window in a multi-storey building without first checking what he might be jumping into. Similarly, the dialogue isn’t all disastrous – there’s a fun exchange where he goes, “I don’t want to fight a woman”, gets beaten up for a bit and then says, “I changed my mind.”
This is probably Van Damme’s best performance, and at least the script makes allowances for the fact that English is his second language. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by some first-rate supporting actors – Silver, in particular, is a joy to watch, relishing every line and clearly having a whale of a time, while the ever-reliable Bruce McGill is on fine form as Max’s boss and best friend.
Plot-wise, the film’s main problem is that it never quite closes its own loop, in the sense that Max and his wife are attacked twice but explanatory scenes seem to be missing in regard to the first attack. Also, Gloria Reuben is painfully underused as Max’s partner, considering how good she is in her few scenes, but let’s not dwell on that right now. Ultimately, this is a trashy but fun time travel thriller that adequately compensates for its numerous flaws just by having a good time. Is a reboot too much to hope for?
Timecop is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.