'Timecop' doesn't really know what time it is

September 16, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

A great University of Chicago comedian named Severn Darden used to ask, "What is time?" and pause dramatically. Then he'd say, "That was time."

The trouble with "Timecop" is that it asks the same question and then answers, naturally without the pause, "Duh."

Initially an amiable sci-fi thriller that toys with the paradoxes inherent in time travel, it finally gets drunk on them. It becomes an incomprehensible stew of versions and revisions, until there's no there there and no then then.

Set in the not too distant future, when time travel has been achieved with the help of vehicles that look like cockpit simulators mounted on Nautilus machines mounted yet again on railroad tracks, it follows Jean-Claude Van Damme as Max Walker, an officer of the FBI's next permutation, the Time Enforcement Commission. TEC patrols the rivers of the past in the hope of preventing slick operators from jet-skiing back, buying Xerox when it was Haloid, planting the certificates in a safe deposit box and coming back to cash in as instant billionaires.

This theme in fact yields the movie's best scene: In 1865, a toothless Flem Snopes type addresses a squad of Confederate soldiers that is carting a shipment of gold across the dreary Georgia landscape. When they refuse to turn the loot over, and reach for their cap and ball pistols, he yanks out two laser-sighted submachine guns. It's a stunning non sequitur (which I only describe because it's featured in the TV ads), but of course it turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with an actual plot; it's just a mood-setting incident.

The plot clicks in a few minutes later. It chronicles Van Damme's pursuit of a sleazy senator and his minions who are using their raids into yesteryear to finance the senator's campaign for the presidency. Ron Silver, who was once a good actor, plays this thoroughly predictable guy with his by-now thoroughly predictable mannerisms: the adenoidal voice and a lot of furtive, nervous-rat eye movements. He's like Judd Nelson on steroids, and it doesn't help at all.

For a while, there's some fun to be had in the game of time tag, and the movie has a couple of nice illusions that keep it interesting. I wasn't nuts about the jet-sled time travel conceit, but "arrival" into a new time zone is neatly handled: The traveler seems to step through a liquid shimmer on the surface of reality, almost a bubble's delicate, distorted membrane. But too often the film doesn't go back to a historical past, which could have been fun, but into the recent past of 10 years back, which saves on the budget but somehow de-nurtures the time-travel gimmick of its natural bite.

And of course you can see where it's going: right toward the moment of trauma that same 10 years back where Max's wife (Mia Sara) was killed by vicious, mysterious interlopers in their how-could-a-cop-afford-that? mansion.

But before it gets back to the big moment, the movie all but atomizes as it divides its hero and villain into two editions. It works toward a fractured moment when old Jean-Claude and new Jean-Claude must fight old Ron and new Ron, though you can hardly tell Van Damme and Silver apart, much less the slightly different versions of them.

By that time, Peter Hyams, the director, has lost all control of the script (which is by Mark Verheiden, based on the comic series he created with Mike Richardson, who also gets a story credit), and chaos reigns supreme. You want to ask the conductor: What place is this, where are we now? But the conductor neither knows nor cares.

There's a secret romance, somewhat akin to "The Terminator," that runs through "Timecop" and gives it its nicest flavor: that's Van Damme's yearning for his lost wife and the haunting suggestion that it might be possible to make a slight revision. It certainly leads Van Damme, desperately in search of an upscale project, into emotional zones where he seems actually authentic.

But far too often, "Timecop" is lost in the netherworld between here and there and now and then.

"Timecop"

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ron Silver

Directed by Peter Hyams

Released by Universal

Rated R

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