Should you be allowed to make a time-travel movie if you can’t be bothered to observe even the most basic diligence towards cause and effect – to temporal geography, if you like? It’s one thing for an accidental journey to mess up the mechanics, but when it’s in the name of a government agency, who should be au fait with such things and be taking due precautions, it just seems like laziness. Throwing Van Damme into the mix simply adds to that sense of the slipshod, meaning it’s only director Peter Hyams’ customary dependability that holds Timecop’s head above water.
Utley: Personally, I think this sounds like that bullshit Star Wars programme.
Timecop was based on a Dark Horse comic series (and, combined with The Mask, helped its co-creator Mark Verheiden – the other creator being Dark Horse publisher Mark Richardson – embark on a Hollywood writing career). You might have hoped, with the expansive canvas of comics, something more considered and intricate was in store.
While Timecop is frequently cited as one of the picks of JCVD’s career – and most financially successful; the martial-arts star had returned to STV by the end of the decade – his mere presence suggests something on the rickety side when it comes to observing genre tropes. True, Arnie was no stranger to impressing himself upon vehicles that really called for someone a little more refined (Total Recall), but JCVD’s penchant for high kicks, and indeed any other kick, feel like they’re progressively wearing down any aspirations this may have to vaguely cerebral plotting (in full fairness, Van Damme does an entirely passable young Walker ’94 and older Walker ’04; it’s the idea that Mia Sara is head over heels for a hulking boob that truly baffles).
Fielding: You’re not funny.
Walker: I’m never funny.
No sooner has Walker floated the idea of a job with the newly formed TEC – Time Enforcement Commission – than a gang of assassins break into his home and blow it up, including poor Mia Sara, on the verge of telling him she’s pregnant. 10 years later, a now-slightly stubbly Walker is working for TEC and learns that Senator McComb (Ron Silver), chair of the oversight committee for the TEC and running for President, “already owns most of the guys we work with!” He’s rather prosaically using time travel to fund his campaign. Surprisingly, Walker’s boss Commander Matuzak (Bruce McGill) is not in McComb’s pocket, since that’s exactly what you expect from casting McGill. Agent Fielding (ER’s Gloria Reuben) is, though. Walker’s attempts to stop all this find him travelling back to 1994 and interacting with both himself and two Senator McCombs, a less than flavoursome narrative course than the one suggested by various vignettes in 1863 and 1929.
George Spota: The funny thing is, the good doctor actually did it.
Time travel, we learn, has been developed by Dr Hans Kleindast, “the Nobel laureate who helped us with the space programme” (if he was working with fake space, that ought to cast doubt over time travel off the bat). Rules are set out, but seemingly arbitrary ones: “Now, you can’t go forward, because the future hasn’t happened yet. However, you can go back and that’s where things get tricky”. The future hasn’t happened yet, except for someone in your future going back in time, of course (like McComb, or Walker).
The only way I might give this a pass as observed within the movie itself is if the rule prevented someone going into the future – since we don’t see anyone doing that – rather than the nonsense that it can’t be done because it hasn’t occurred. Later, we are also told “The same matter cannot occupy the same space at the same time”. This has been called out as balderdash for reasons of different cells etc compared to 10 years previously, but I suspect we get what it’s getting at, and it at least has its precedents (Doctor Who’s Mawdryn Undead, with Brigadiers half-a-decade apart meeting, releases a discharge of energy, so somewhat less Altered States and final than the fate befalling McComb).
George Spota: If you go back and change something, it’s serious. It could be catastrophic. It’s like throwing a stone in a lake, only now there are ripples in time.
Others – doubtless aficionados – have dined out on the plot holes and swathes of illogicalities in Timecop, but a few of the more salient ones bear noting. Timecop references the Butterfly Effect, and it even illustrates it, but it does so in determinedly restrained and linear fashion. So Walker returns to a 2004 where McComb is now frontrunner for the presidency, and Matuzak isn’t firm friends with Walker and has no knowledge of Fielding (she hasn’t joined the agency). And Ricky (Scott Bellis, best known as Max Fenig in The X-Files) is no longer a slightly skeevy VR wanker but somewhat spruced up. None of the other many variants that would ensue are addressed. We also see this occur instantaneously with the cut on McComb ’94’s face forming a scar on ’04’s.
Which leads to the Back to the Future protagonist point. Like Back to the Future, Timecop clearly presents itself as one, singular timeline, one that may be altered any which way but is still singular. Under such circumstances, anyone changing it or having it changed around them ought to be affected like everyone else. It’s no good simply saying it’s an effect of the time travel, as there was clearly a Walker who worked for Matuzak but never had 100s of helpings of his wife’s goulash in 2004 (2), just as there was clearly a Walker who lived a decade with surviving Melissa (Sara) and their 10-year-old son. Such developments can only be explained by multiple selves and timelines. Clearly then, there isn’t even the finest veneer of finesse with the timey-wimey, even as it continues a curious obsession with having double the JCVDs on screen (this following Double Impact).
Matuzak: How’s our leading presidential candidate making these expeditions into the past without our equipment, old pal?
Walker: The prototype was never dismantled. Kleindast’s. It’s in Calverton, Maryland.
As for the device itself, it seems to be another Back to the Future -derivative conceit, but an incredibly dissatisfying one, since it will leave most people scratching their heads at why Walker straps himself into a time sled which propels itself under the influence of rocket fuel towards a concrete slab (with splatter marks where two previous travellers were unlucky) yet arrives at his destination shorn of said sled. Then, when he returns, he’s “catapulted” back into the sled which arrives back at TEC HQ. Even if it’s explained more cogently in the comic book, it’s probably the most inelegant method of time travel I’ve ever come across.
The most disappointing thing about this is that it could have been much more pulpy fun with cheap-and-cheerful historical stop-offs as Walker pursues his prize. You’d be forgiven for assuming, from the events here, that the only person using the tech is McComb and his minions, since he’s using the prototype device (the other references are cough and you’ll miss them, albeit one might assume the TEC is set up on the basis that, like nukes, if one power or person gets hold of the tech, it’s likely that others will too, eventually).
The cold opening promises so much, as a time traveller (Callum Keith Rennie) in 1863 massacres a company of Confederate soldiers for their gold. Likewise, Walker dropping in on former partner Lyle (Jason Schombing) in 1929, who is making a killing on shares in Middle States Oil. Warnings about killing Hitler are made, Iraq becoming “the first country to have the atomic bomb”, and a “kill team out of Iran” in 1979 having their “third try this year” while the “CIA’s trying to locate their launch facility” (CIA are good guys in this universe). So the tech HAS got out to other countries; we’re simply stuck with the more mundane threat of McComb (“Somebody’s trying to get a jump on real-estate, buying up Beverly Hills” is surely him)
McComb: It’s what happens when you change time. Lines of confluence, probable scales, all that shit.
Of whom, the opening assassination attempt is evidently at his behest, and it’s clear from his later conversation, the instruction to “Have him killed before he joined TEC. That way nobody in the Agency ever talked to him or even knew him” that this is the first and only time that has occurred to him (ie that there was no failed attempt he was aware of at the same time and place that killed only Walker’s wife). McComb tells Walker “It’s different than before, isn’t it? It’s what happens when you change time”, but if we’re to assume McComb was in the house the first time (and zapped back before it blew), what part of the train of events are supposed to be “different than before”, such that ’04 Walker wasn’t returning to prevent them in the ’94 opening (because ’04 Walker had clearly got far enough that he’d returned to a different ’04 from the first ’04 we see him in)? Probably best not to think about it too much.
The other point to note about all this is the 2004 future. There are armour-plated self-drive cars and, it seems, a decidedly right-wing turn to the political scene. You know, all the things the liberal elite despise (or rather, all the things that are characterised as left-right according to Hegelian principles designed to keep us squabbling over the wrong things and our eyes off the ball).
In the first 2004 we see, McComb is having difficulties with his presidential bid, “But you’re gaining with the pro-life, pro-death-penalty coalition, and with the close-our-border, America for Americans, anti-immigration faction”. Thus, all things mentioned are (a) bad because they aren’t lefty, (b) an indication of someone inherently unscrupulous and potentially even evil and (c) equal unto themselves in terms of “moral” or “ethical” objectionability. We also learn that, while McComb has failed in his bid for government-provided campaign funds, the White Supremacist Party has applied for matching funds (sparking many groups to petition for the abolition of the practice). The mention of such extremism again seems to be an indication of where McComb and hence no one who is in any way decent (ie left-leaning liberal) stands. What we need is Bill and Hillary forever!
McComb: When I’m in office, it’s gonna be like the ’80s again. The top 10 percent will get richer, the rest can emigrate to Mexico, live a better life.
In 2004 (2), McComb has made headway, after a trip to the past where he encounters himself (so in 2004 (1) he has only messed lightly with the past, not to the extent of giving himself direct instructions). He tells himself “The country’s going down the drain because of the special interests. We need someone in the Whitehouse who’s so rich, he doesn’t have to listen to anybody”, an utterance that has won the character some comparisons to Trump. Because, of course, on the surface of things, that is indeed who Trump is (what it also means, by implication, is that all previous incumbents have been attached to Elite principles. The special interests themselves are part of the web of political and social obfuscation that ensures most are distracted from the puppet masters). There’s also that the Donald’s time travel has been limited to viewing an alternate future, rather than physically going there.
As noted, Hyams does a serviceable job. He keeps the lighting subdued and subtle – Arnie hated that kind of thing – which allows Timecop sufficient surface polish to combat the inherent cheese. Walker watching old videos of Mia would later be copied for Tom Cruise in Minority Report. The T2 technology is now so cheap that a guy has his arm frozen and shattered like its nothing to make a big deal over. Ron Silver is hamming it up in villain mode, having irreversibly entered that territory in Blue Steel a few years before. McGill is easily MVP and gets all the best lines (“By the way, when I said McComb hasn’t bought me, you were supposed to say, ‘I know that’”). Kenneth Welsh is in one scene as a senator.
While the (Sam Raimi-produced) movie doesn’t hang about and has sufficient incident, I found my attention wandering. JCVD can’t anchor stakes for this sort of thing, so while he can do the action, I don’t really care about the outcome. And the logistics of the time travel are strictly pedestrian when they aren’t outright nonsensical, so there are no wows from that side. Timecop is passable, which makes it, for a JCVD movie, something of a triumph.