Heads are often spinning in Jean-Claude Van Damme's movies, usually because the erstwhile Muscles From Brussels has sent them into orbit with one of his well-placed martial arts kicks. In "Timecop," however, the spinning has a different cause: the dizzying premise behind the inevitable action.
Adapted, like so many recent movies seem to be, from a comic-book series, "Timecop" is based on a venerable science-fiction riff: going back in time, even if it were possible, would be terrifically risky, because anything you did in the past would have incalculable effects on the present. And if you happened to run into yourself back then, so much the worse.
With side trips to the Civil War South and Wall Street during the great stock market crash, "Timecop" is serious about this travel business to the point of dividing moments spent in its Washington, D.C., setting between a pair of different decades.
One part of the film is set in 1994, the year in which a time travel device has just been invented. An up-and-coming young senator named Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is placed in charge of congressional oversight for the machine, and a D.C. cop named Max Walker (Van Damme) with a loving wife (Mia Sara) is transferred to the Time Enforcement Commission to help police the new technology.
By 2004, things are different. McComb has become an unruly presidential candidate desperate for money to finance a losing campaign, and Walker, his life marred by tragedy, is kept awfully busy going back to the past to corral larcenous types who think it would be nice to buy up Beverly Hills before the celebrities got there.
The Mark Verheiden script has both Walker and McComb making more trips between 1994 and 2004 than an airport shuttle. And given that everything has changed in 2004 every time one or the other comes back from 1994, things get awfully confusing awfully fast.
Though his directing style (witness previous science-fiction films like "Outland" and "2010") is all crude energy, Peter Hyams does keep things moving fast enough to make figuring out how internally coherent all these plot complications are just about impossible.
Never the most expressive of actors, "Timecop" marks Van Damme's attempt to expand his range, to turn himself into something of a romantic hero. His battered Hamlet look is suitably brooding, and as a concession to this new image, he probably beats the tar out of fewer people than he has in the past.
But even though this is supposed to be a kindlier Van Damme vehicle, his movies couldn't exist without his trademark ability to deliver the kind of accurate, powerful kicks any World Cup team would envy. All his soulful glances notwithstanding, "Timecop" still depends too much on violence to make it appealing to the uninitiated or the unwary.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence, sexuality and language. Times guidelines: characters kicked and beaten into submission and a snippet of exploitation-style nudity. 'Timecop'
Jean-Claude Van Damme: Walker
Ron Silver: McComb
Mia Sara: Melissa
Gloria Reuben: Fielding
Bruce McGill: Matuzak
Largo Entertainment presents, in association with JVC Entertainment, a Signature/Renaissance/Dark Horse production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Peter Hyams. Producers Moshe Diamant, Sam Raimi, Robert Taper. Executive producer Mike Richardson. Story Mike Richardson & Mark Verheiden. Screenplay Mark Verheiden. Cinematographer Peter Hyams. Editor Steven Kemper. Costumes Dan Lester. Music Mark Isham. Production design Philip Harrison. Art director Richard Hudolin. Set decorators Rose Marie McSherry, Ann Marie Corbett. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.