Knocked off

In my article about the previous collaboration between Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung (the Jet Li cowboy movie with Jeff Wolfe), I explained how the final fights in Knock Off had suffered at the hands of the Hollywood editing system. I won’t reiterate everything here, since it had a place in that article. The director, Tsui, claimed that he would go absolutely crazy when he was directing Knock Off and he pretty much does. I won’t divulge his trickery here, because part of the movie’s quirky charm is the unexpected. I will say that Wong Kar-Wai has nothing on Tsui’s ingenuity. If it had been a TV movie instead of a theatrical release (or video depending on where you live), it probably would’ve been met with less scorn. Hell, we might have been talking about how it was robbed of cinema greatness like Steve Wang’s Drive.

In fact, if Knock Off had been made and released before Double Team then maybe certain careers would’ve been enriched. With encouraging word-of-mouth and enough promotion, the uncut version of Knock Off would’ve made The Matrix seem only half impressive. Jeff Wolfe (seen above) and Mike Miller (seen below) might have gained better futures, especially Jeff – a man who had what it took to be what Scott Adkins is right now. Sammo would’ve been hired on more American movies or at least TV shows like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Iron Fist. In fact, Knock Off is the main reason why I never wanted to be a martial arts actor in American films. What’s the point in working so long and hard on labyrinthine fight scenes when you can have your scenes butchered or left on the cutting room floor by a bad editor or director.

Considering that Double Team was released in the same month as Grosse Point Blank, Hark should’ve cast John Cusack because there was this postmodern stigma being attached to the mooning martial artist known as the muscles from Brussels. I’m not a Cusack fan, but maybe he would’ve elevated the material by playing Marcus Ray. I certainly wouldn’t have been thinking that the character should be called Marcus Gills because the selected choice was coked to the gills. I’m sure that Sammo had respect for Cusack to not only be trained by Benny Urquidez but to fight him on screen like Jackie Chan did. It’s too bad that any given H.K. VCD isn’t required to have a booklet like a CD which has lyrics and liner notes, because there was some unintentional hilarity in the DVD booklet courtesy of the blow-riddled Belgian butt-flasher: “The combination of Hong Kong and Knock Off is like Blade Runner on Earth.”

Even the H.K. box office would’ve been better had Wong Jing directed it. In Hark’s hands, Knock Off is an unintentionally funny Van Damme movie. In Jing’s hands, it would be Rob Schneider’s funniest film and the best English language action comedy. The problem is that, even with Jean-Claude Van Damme drowning himself in cocaine, he would never allow Rob to steal the spotlight. All you have to do is look at how John Woo failed to make Hard Target less JCVD and more Lance Henriksen. Hark was wasting his time directing JCVD again after the friction that occurred during the making of Double Team, which hurt his own career in the U.S. and H.K. despite the fact that the Singaporean box office total was high! Still, it was generally seen as a low blow premeditating a lower blow. The kitsch of Knock Off doesn’t live up to the madness that encapsulated what was partly a Dennis Rodman star vehicle.

With Hark at the helm, people were disappointed because the bar is not low when it comes to expectations. In terms of what he had to offer in experimentation, he could’ve incorporated his ideas into Time and Tide (2000). Not only would he have been rightly recognized for rivalling Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, but the Western DVD release of Time and Tide would’ve got way more attention. Knock Off would’ve been better received had Tsui left his name off the credits so that Sammo (in his paunchy glory above) can land a foot on the ladder to Hollywood. Maybe Hark allowed himself to reunite with the Belgian because he knew that he could control him with nostril powder making him more pliable. As you can see below, he was off his rocker! Conversely, Hark didn’t have time to eat, so he only drank Coca-Cola.

When it was released in Hong Kong, it was treated as a second-rate film despite the fact that Tsui is the Steven Spielberg of Chinese cinema. It was showing only in 9 theaters instead of the 15 that Double Team targeted. Unlike Double Team, Knock Off failed to gross a million H.K. dollars. Seeing as how himself and John Woo were rivals, Knock Off made him seem like a bigger failure. Knock Off began principal photography in the same month that Double Team came out in H.K. This was a month after the U.S. release. In May of 1997, Tsui said something which reminded me of the banner at Bruce Lee’s H.K. funeral: “Everyone’s basis to go to Hollywood is the same. Everyone is flowing and sinking in the sea of art. Film-makers all would like to know what is Hollywood, and absolutely wouldn’t feel pride upon arriving there. If one day, I could use Hollywood’s resource to make a Chinese movie in China, then that would be something to be proud of.”

Another example of Hark being a glutton for punishment circa May in `97: “Going to Hollywood, I actually need to tolerate abuses. No one knows you, man. No matter what box office success you made in Hong Kong, they might not understand what you made – even after seeing it. Now, the purpose of you coming here is to see how you would film foreigners, to see how if you are Hollywood quality. Many things like how you put the camera angle need explanation. I am not used to this production method, but this is Hollywood’s rule. Everything needed to be explained, then explained again.”

Hark makes an excuse about taking on Double Team in 1996: “I remember once saying to the film company’s manager that there was a better script that could be used, not expecting that manager to stop me immediately. He said – Hollywood doesn’t like this type of suggestion, the company asked you to shoot this script; don’t mention another script. Their rule is to use 11 weeks to shoot, I was flying between Hong Kong and Europe. By the time that I realized how this film should be shot, half the film was already completed.”

Hark wanted to hark back to the days when he made film-making look easy. Besides teaching the importance of not arguing with foreign executives, he said that film-making in Hollywood is comfortable because everything is taken care of by someone else. He didn’t have to see to all compartments of the crew. He went as far to say that it is like the nine-to-five office jobs. It’s been suggested that Jet Li turned down Michael Wong’s role to go to L.A. to act in Lethal Weapon 4. That’s not true. That film began filming in January of 1998, so there was plenty of time for him to do both movies, especially since he went on to do a final H.K. movie (Hitman) that wrapped on December 6, 1997. The reality is more to do with three things – the U.S. studio wanted someone who had some Hollywood exposure. Michael was in a Canadian TV movie directed by John Woo – Once a Thief (or Violent Tradition as it was known in Britain).

Secondly, it wouldn’t sense make for Jet to accept it in the first place. My logic is that it would make more sense for Jean-Claude to be the sidekick. Thirdly, Hark saw a big opportunity to prove that he was Woo’s rival i.e. Once a Thief was aired for the first time in the previous year. Jet’s departure meant that Schneider went from being the Leo Getz of the original script’s trio to being the co-star equivalent to Charles Grodin in Midnight Run. There was a concern that Jet’s rejection would affect Asian sales, but the mixture of Hark and Hung working on a third nineties movie was enough to sustain interest. The second Hollywood Hark film began filming at the piers of Kwun Tong and was estimated to last about three to four months. Tsui had assured the press that the explosive death of a crew member during the making of Teddy Chan’s Downtown Torpedoes wouldn’t subdue his own desire for explosions.

The explosive experts were from the U.S. and worked on The Towering Inferno. Nansun Shi Nan-Sheng, a woman who was the sole producer and co-produced Double Team, revealed that Jean-Claude didn’t ask for much. He only brought an assistant and another for the set (maybe a coke gofer). Lela Mochon surprised Nansun even more with her modesty. She didn’t bring anyone with her and didn’t mind the H.K. crew. When asked how much will he get for his part as the action director, Sammo expressed that money doesn’t matter since he and Hark have been friends for such a long time if not collaborators for the same length. Sammo recalled that he spent 5 days on Double Team, but got along well with JCVD. He believed that this time would be easier than the last since the star will be doubly doubled (two doubles).

Carman Lee told the press that she didn’t mind being the second lead. Again, I have problems with the casting issue of this movie. She was clearly lied to in order to accept the role. Secondly, her statement implies that she previously had some kind of high-tier status. She had to do a screen test in order to win the role of the policewoman. The screen test was pointless, because she needed an English dialogue coach. It didn’t help that she didn’t want a future as an action movie heroine. Her weakness was that she spoke too fast. Despite being one of the main stars of a 1996 Stephen Chow movie (Forbidden City Cop), her H.K. film career ended after this. She claimed to have many action scenes in this movie. The deletion of the scenes made her come off as a liar. In retrospect, Karen Mok was a better choice. Her English is perfect, and it would’ve allowed Corey Yuen’s So Close to be sold on the back of this movie.

On the Monday night of May 26, they were shooting the finale by the Kwun Tong pier with Carman fighting the Westerners. JCVD was exempt from the scene. Sammo joked that he would have to evaluate Carman’s billing. Mike Miller’s intro took place in an alley where he killed her character. The woman below, Kim Maree Penn, barely got a chance to strut her stuff in the final cut. Even without the benefit of hindsight, Carman should not have played the cop for the simple fact that she was moonlighting on Option Zero. It’s likely that everyone would’ve been happier had her role been given to Kim. Michael Wong spent the night of July 19 working completely non-stop because they were rushing the parts with JCVD. Days prior, there was a set accident which injured 8 crew members –  6 had scratches whereas 2 had serious injuries. Michael wasn’t there but still felt that accidents like this are very scary.

Some, including Sammo, said the scaffold was blown down by strange winds. Personally, I think it was turf-obsessed Triads. This is where it starts to feel like Rashomon. On July 17 and 18, Sammo was filming an action scene at Ching Yee Ship factory. The deadline for the entire film was July 20. It was on the contract that was signed with the American company – shooting must continue even if accidents occur. After the accident, Yuen Bun had immediately reported to him. It was the second time that the iron scaffolding fell. The previous time was because of a heavy storm. Yuen Bun helped Tsui with the action direction and the rescue. He pointed out that the scaffolding was built securely, but the top of it was covered by a cloth to keep rain out, which unfortunately also caught the gusty wind and caused the scaffold to fall. Bun eerily said: “The iron scaffolding fell because of the strong wind and rain, but the injuries weren’t due to the weather.”

On the afternoon of the 18th, the reporters headed to Sing Fung studio (where Tsui was working), where they saw that the set was still guarded by the police and surrounded by police lines while Tsui continued to work with Schneider on the other side. Schneider, who considers Tsui to be the nicest director who he has ever worked with, announced that he would return to the U.S. in the following week. No article about this unusual JCVD movie would be complete without Jude Poyer (the goatee guy below) literally weighing in on the action: “The end action suffered because in later stages of the film (which went over schedule and budget), the footage was taken away from Tsui and edited by people who didn’t understand what they had. The fruit market fight edit benefits from Tsui and Sammo’s supervision.”

The aformentioned female producer, Nansun, claimed that Tsui would wrap things up on Knock Off in July at the earliest. As June became July, the film was being rushed with three units every day in the hope of finishing as quickly as possible. The budget was 35 million, and he has been proven to be usually cost-effective. It seems like he didn’t have enough time to be experimental, so he had the film completed as if it was a typical H.K. quickie…..just so that they could avoid dealing with gangs. Supposedly, the progress was affected by the rain in the preceding two months. However, you would think that would add to what JCVD called the Blade Runner atmosphere. Nansun claimed that the film was on schedule but over budget. This is an indication of Triad interference. However, she claimed that JCVD would occasionally get out of line by refusing to do what and when he initially agreed to.

A Sing Tao Daily reporter suggested that Tsui’s second failure as a U.S. film-maker was a blessing in disguise, because it meant that the H.K. film industry wasn’t deprived of making money from his talent. The drawback is that the H.K. gross was H.K.$ 920,000. Many film critics slammed Knock Off for being more foreign than a film made by foreigners as it made Hong Kong out to be some backwater place. Despite it being a box office bomb, JCVD met with Run Run Shaw to discuss a project for cable television. The above photo is such a stagey attempt at appealing to Americans that Lisa Morton had used it in her book titled The Cinema of Tsui Hark. To whoever buys the Knock Off press kit on eBay, good luck!

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