We all have niche loves in our lives, something we hold dear that might not get the same mileage for everyone. Off the Beaten Path is a Lewton Bus series where members of the crew will discuss something or someone they hold dear to their hearts that might not be in the mainstream, or doesn’t feel like it gets the appreciation it deserves.
Beautiful locations, a fortified lair, an extravagant villain played by a renowned character actor, espionage thrills and action galore. While this roster fits for a 007 installment, it also applies for the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Double Team. And as such, it comes with certain implications that make it a recommendable watch for nineties’ action aficionados.
Van Damme plays Jack Quinn, a counter-terrorism agent who, wait for it, is retired and called back for a classic one last job. The mission in question is to stop a globe-trotting terrorist named Stavros (Mickey Rourke), who’s the one target Quinn could never get. Things escalate from there, becoming more and more personal.
Even though the history between Quinn and Stavros is never elaborated with terribly sophisticated detail in the page, Van Damme and Rourke’s tense clashes do a great job conveying that these two guys have been performing this cat-and-mouse dynamic for so long that they know each other to an uncomfortable degree. They can predict how they’ll move, think and react to each other’s plans. Seeing how they adapt to the heat of their confrontations adds momentum to the proceedings and gives a clear sense of how Quinn and Stavros are truly matched in terms of skills and intelligence.
In addition to his chemistry with Rourke, Van Damme has a good time sharing the screen with… Dennis Rodman, who is basically the Q to Van Damme’s James Bond. Rodman’s character, a flamboyant weapons dealer named Yaz, isn’t especially important to move the plot forward strictly speaking, but his presence is a considerable part of Double Team’s goofy charm. Rodman’s cool, easygoing attitude is an amusing contrast to Van Damme’s no-nonsense tough guy, and the height difference between them is used to surprisingly effective comedic effect. I also love how the movie plays with the fact that Rodman is, first and foremost, a basketball player. In his fight scenes, Yaz treats henchmen and objects like they’re balls, throwing them to a net stand-in while delivering cheesy basketball puns with gusto.
As is often the case with Van Damme’s vehicles, you can argue that Double Team has the DNA of a more ambitious and thought-provoking movie. In this case, the story of a man who committed a fatal mistake, is presumed dead and now has to live with losing everything he had, only to discover that the family he left behind is being threatened by a powerful enemy. In fact, this premise is not all that different from what we’ve seen in some Mission: Impossible entries. However, this is not really an issue, because Double Team’s desire to be the most spectacularly meatheaded movie ever made is respectable in its own right. In fact, the action sequences, though quaint by today’s standards (the editing can be quite clunky sometimes), are genuinely entertaining thanks to Van Damme’s committed physicality. I honestly can’t help but admire a movie that features a secret society of hacker monks, but most importantly, Van Damme and Rodman surviving an explosion by shielding themselves with a Coke vending machine right after getting chased by a tiger in a Roman amphitheatre. Speaking of Coke, it’s hilarious how the soft drink is basically treated like a gadget in a couple of scenes, which as far as blatant product placements go, is pretty creative.
What made Van Damme so special as an action star in the nineties was his ability to stay completely straight-faced in the presence of astonishing absurdity. That talent is what makes something like Double Team fun. If Jack Quinn was played with any sense of ironic self-awareness, an easy route to take with this type of movie, it would lose all of its appeal (which is what happened to the short-lived Amazon series Jean-Claude Van Johnson).
Van Damme made a name for himself thanks to his martial arts prowess, muscular flexibility and idiosyncratic dialog delivery style, and Double Team deserves credit for throwing any pretense of depth and gravitas out of the window for the sake of delivering an ideal playground for the Belgian star’s skills, helped along by two other oddball performers who are perfectly willing to tune into his wavelength and provide cartoonish glory in spades.