Double Team - Film Review

San Francisco Chronicle: April 4, 1997

It's the classic confrontation -- not good versus evil, but clean versus dirty. "Double Team" presents Jean-Claude Van Damme -- the spiffiest action hero, the man who looks well-groomed in the desert, the best haircut in movies -- in a battle to the death with Mickey Rourke, the man who is scared of shampoo.

But Tsui Hark ("A Chinese Ghost Story," "Once Upon a Time in China"), canny director that he is, plays against our expectations in this, his first American film. He gives us an unshaven Van Damme and a relatively hygienic Rourke. In one extreme close-up, Van Damme is even shown with unsightly hair peeking out from his nostrils. What is Hark thinking? Comes here from Hong Kong and starts messing with our heroes.

And our villains, too. Rourke is buffed in ``Double Team.'' Not Van Damme buffed, not aesthetic buffed. Rourke is in amazing-yet- weird shape, with evil-looking, humongous shoulders. He looks like someone forgot to tell him about chest exercises. In their final showdown, it's Van Damme playing shirts to Rourke's skins. Add into the mix an arms dealer played by Dennis Rodman, a basketball star who has augmented his fame by dressing like an idiot, and the action recipe is complete.

The movie takes its title from the basketball term in an effort to capitalize on Rodman's presence. That's as good a signal as any of the picture's level of aspiration. But Hark takes this weak pretext for action and throws everything at it. By the time the opening credits are finished, there have been two gun battles (with machine guns) and a gasoline fire.

``Double Team'' is either an intentional satire of American action films or a Hollywood translation of Hong Kong-style action. In either case the film is odd and confusing, and it just keeps coming.

Hark is the kind of director who will use 15 different setups to film a one-minute conversation, just so the audience can notice how brilliant he is. But at the same time, he often really is brilliant. Who else would use fades in the midst of action scenes? He actually fades in and out, without interrupting the velocity of the action.

Shots linger in the mind. Van Damme goes through a glass window, hits the ground and then there's this beautiful close-up: Van Damme's head on the floor, with a handful of little glass crystals falling in front of his face.

"Double Team" might have been a ridiculous, 90-minute waste of time, but its scope, style and brazen stupidity eventually earn it a sort of campy grandeur. There are shoot-outs in Antwerp, in Nice and in Rome's Piazza Novanna. And at one point or another each character is chased by a tiger. "A man is strong," international menace Rourke intones. "But the tiger is stronger."

Rodman can't act, but his outsized personality fits right in. Van Damme, as always, does his job and looks good doing it. As for Rourke, he's taken the first step. Now he just needs to rinse and repeat.


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