Noted Hong Kong genre cinema juggernaut Tsui Hark made a career out of defying the trends and workmanlike archetypes with which his work was often associated; whether it was adding martial arts and political comedy to cannibal horror with We’re Going to Eat You (1980) or merging the aesthetics of wuxia and gothic terror in The Butterfly Murders (1979), Tsui’s films rarely conform to expectations. Double Team (1997), the first of his two American movies, didn’t stray far from his penchant for mutating genres while also giving western audiences a taste of what the more erratic Hong Kong action films could be—and how traditional Hollywood films pale in comparison.
Released the same year as John Woo’s third American film, Face/Off, but made for less than half Woo’s budget, Double Team merged the sensibilities of the then-burgeoning direct-to-video market in the United States with the now-antiquated idea of the brawny action hero. It seems like no coincidence that Double Team star Jean-Claude Van Damme worked with other Hong Kong luminaries on their American debuts: John Woo’s Hard Target (1993) and Ringo Lam’s Maximum Risk (1996). Each film allowed Van Damme to showcase his martial arts techniques alongside intricately staged shootout sequences, a rare combination in western genre cinema.
Double Team, unlike Face/Off, feels like a Hong Kong film with a Hollywood budget. It is bookended by spectacular setpieces—an early scene set in a carnival featuring slow-motion shoot-outs and fiery explosions and a final showdown between Van Damme and Mickey Rourke, flanked by a tiger, in a Roman Colosseum—and moments of awkward humor. But, like Tsui’s other genre experiments, Double Team never settles into one register for too long. At face value, it’s a late-90s Van Damme actioner, but the bulk of its runtime turns out to be a hybrid of prison movie and political intrigue.
It would have been easy for Tsui to turn in a middling buddy-espionage movie, but to his and Van Damme’s, credit, it works shockingly well. The action sequences are characteristically wild for Tsui—Van Damme fights a man wielding a knife between his toes and also engages in underwater combat with lasers—and the island prison set midsection features a montage in which Van Damme slices the fingerprint off of his thumb in a scheme to escape from his room. This is all to say nothing of Van Damme’s co-star, Dennis Rodman, who appears largely for the sake of then-timely basketball and hair color jokes while rocking some truly spectacular outfits. Double Team is hardly Tsui nor Van Damme’s best film, but it is one of the more colorful, strange, and unclassifiable Hollywood action films of the 90s. Arriving just before Van Damme’s direct-to-video career and the Hollywood trend toward CGI spectacle for theatrical releases, it’s a final gasp for originality and brazen theatricality; or maybe it’s just a stupid excuse to watch Van Damme and Rodman jump out of an airplane inside of a big inflatable ball.
Double Team screens tonight, June 13, on 35mm at Nitehawk Prospect Park.