Timecop was directed by Peter Hyams (End of Days, 2010), written by Mark Verheiden (My Name is Bruce, Swamp Thing) and stars Jean-Claude Van Damme (The Last Mercenary, We Die Young), Ron Silver (Find Me Guilty, Reversal of Fortune), Bruce McGill (Rizzoli & Isles, The Lookout), Gloria Reuben (Mr. Robot, Shadowhunter), and Mia Sara (Legend, A Stranger Among Us). It’s about a time-regulating officer fighting the plans of a politician to change the past and control the future.
The Plot: As is the case for most movies involving time travel, Hyams’ movie has stakes on its side, with the past and future in jeopardy thanks to mankind’s meddling. The story it tells doesn’t really go into depth about the woes of the subject, but it makes an appealing backdrop for a regular good versus evil story.
In then-present 1994, a Justice Department appointee is sent to convince the Senate, including McComb (Silver), for approval of the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) as time travel has just been invented and used to steal gold from 1863 Confederates. With this precedent for a time-jumping black market, the TEC is created with Matuzak (McGill) directing its protection of history’s progression. Employed by the TEC is Walker (Van Damme), who’s the victim of a break-in that kills his wife Melissa (Sara).
Ten years later, Walker still works for the TEC, cracking down on those who’d seek to go to the past to make fortunes in the present. It’s not all that clear how a person who goes backwards upwards of 70 years can still be middle-aged in 2004, considering they’re still occupying the same body, wouldn’t they be nearing 100 years old and on their deathbeds in the current year?
One man tries to make money off future oil prices and once he’s caught by Walker, admits that McComb hired him to get money for his presidential bid. Walker and McComb are well aware of each other which is an interesting touch considering most actioners create the warring factions after the plot’s impetus.
Matuzak lets Walker, along with IA operator Fielding (Reuben), investigate 1994 McComb to attempt to prove his guilt of rigging the future from the past, but changes are made and now Walker is on his own in his quest. The rules, apart from people only being able to travel backwards in time, not forwards, are unclear, leading to a shaky way of stitching a sci-fi façade on top of a regular renegade cop plot. The idea made an opportunity for convention-breaking, but the execution brings it all back down to average.
The Characters: Barring the bizarre names that the writer evidently thought would be commonplace in 2004 like “Matuzak” and “Spota”, the characters are painfully generic and feel relegated to more linear, generic cop-gone-rogue movies.
Walker doesn’t really get a personality written for him, it’s Van Damme’s natural charm that keeps the character ever so slightly above average. Apart from his relationship with Melissa, who’s equally blank, and a nice house destroyed in the attack which killed his wife, the audience isn’t let in on what life was like prior to the movie’s events. In the decade that followed, Walker seems to have gotten more cynical, untrusting of his TEC compatriots, and obsessed with his wife’s passing, repeating a recording of them together so often he can quote every word from it.
Hyams doesn’t play coy about McComb’s villainy, which allows for his scummy personality to get ample time in the limelight. He’s a cartoon character. Or, more accurately, a comic pulp character as Verheiden and co-creator Mike Richardson started with Timecop being a comic miniseries. Everything about him screams sleazebag: he’s violent towards his assistants, petty about miscommunication, and greedy to a fault. While that makes for an easy to despise antagonist, it’s Silver’s dry, glib delivery that makes him memorable.
Verheiden tries to squeeze in some bits for the supporting characters, like Fielding’s birthday being on the day she and Walker go back to 1994, but none of that means anything since all but the antagonist is unremarkably scripted.
The Action: Timecop is indisputably an action movie, but it’s rather stingy on providing action scenes for over half of its runtime, although Van Damme makes the few interspersed sequences before the third act good enough.
Melissa’s death and the destruction of Walker’s life isn’t made memorably due to lacking direction from Hyams. Some goons drag Walker out onto his front yard and the movie shows Melissa looking at him before something happens to her, although the movie doesn’t insinuate anything, making the moment more questionable than exciting. Following that, the house explodes in a cool fashion, but that kind of hollowness from mere seconds ago ruins whatever feeling that explosion was supposed to impart.
A distinction is made between Timecop and its contemporaries for a brief time, as the man that Walker apprehends in the 1920s who tried to fund McComb’s campaign tries to save himself the punishment he’d receive from the TEC by jumping out of a window, only for both men to be transported back to 2004 before they hit the ground. Adding the time travel premise on top of regular action scenes like this results in above-average fights, but that’s not done much until the end. It makes sense narratively, but the fights are largely stale without that stamp on them.
In 1994, there’s a decent shootout in a factory of sorts in which 2004 McComb confronts 1994 McComb that makes for twice the Silver scene-chewing, a lot of explosions and flames thanks to combustible barrels, some literal arm breaking made possible by liquid nitrogen, and the usage of a monkey wrench as a melee weapon. This uptick in quality lasts the rest of the runtime as Walker pools his knowledge, captain, and martial arts skills together to beat the odds, making good on the basic narrative promises.
For the first half of Timecop, the action is rather forgettable, but it turns up the heat and puts its sci-fi bent into literal action, making for a strongly loaded second half. It’s regrettable that it takes so long to get there.
The Technics: With Hyams being an established cinematographer and the movie having the largest budget of any Van Damme starring vehicle, Timecop is easily one of the most well-rounded films the man has been a part of.
Comic book beginnings and noir influences give the movie a unique identity. It’s not a cyberpunk dystopia like Blade Runner, and it’s not a Marvel or DC property. Instead, there’s an in-between feeling, with smoky, distant cinematography from Hyams himself, and interesting production future production design, convincing past production design, borderline goofy costuming for TEC agents, and distinct sound cues. It’d be difficult to mistake Timecop for any others the star has been attached to.
Pacing is troublesome for Timecop, as it slowly walks along its path to a rather formulaic conclusion there is ample time for the audience to try and wrap their heads around the ramifications of the time travel performed here, making holes large enough to stick a hand through. It’s clearly best to avoid thinking about that, but with the first 50 minutes taking their sweet time to deliver the expected goods, it’s hard not to.
Condensing three full comic stories into a single, intelligible 98-minute movie proved a big hurdle for Timecop, one that it couldn’t jump. Once the second half rolls around, it improves by a large margin, but it’s a shame it didn’t start that way.
Timecop is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital platforms. If you’re looking for something else like it, FilmTagger has some suggestions.