Control Nathan Rabin: Double Team (1997)

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One of my all-time favorite interviews was a Random Roles back in the day with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Here’s what he had to say I about the 1997 Dennis Rodman buddy comedy Double Team, which I offered to patrons as one of two options, alongside Time Cop in Control Nathan Rabin, the feature where I give the living saints who pledge to this site an opportunity to choose between one of two films I must watch, then write about:

“Let me tell you, on Double Team, I made a huge mistake. Not Tsui. Not the studio, which was Columbia. But I wasn’t really Jean-Claude Van Damme. I was not me. The movie did well, by the way. They spent money on the film, and if I was what I am today or 15 years ago, that movie had the chance to be a super hit. Tsui was ready. Everything was good, all the tools were there. The casting was there. And then Van Damme fucked up.”

When I asked him what he meant by “not being himself", he explained, “I was not the guy of today. I was less responsible. I was into a divorce. You know, stuff like that. I'm very sensitive, and sometimes when you have those obstacles in your life, it can derange the way we are normally.” 

It’s an exchange that has stuck with me through the years. It’s just so goddamned poignant. What Van Damme was experiencing was an actor’s regret over blown opportunities but also a recovering addict’s bottomless sadness about all the mistakes made along the way, all the beautiful things that could have been if only the addict had been able to tame their compulsions. 

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I love it when actors refer to themselves in the third person, particularly when doing so presents a small-scale existential crisis. 

The problem with Double Team, Van Damme’s brain has convinced him, is not that it was largely a vehicle for the comedy stylings of human Poochie and non actor Dennis Rodman. No, in Van Damme’s mind, the reason the movie failed was because Van Damme was not being Van Damme. And when is Van Damme not Van Damme? Van Damme is not on Van Damme when Van Damme is on cocaine. Van Damme is not Van Damme when he’s making mistakes. Van Damme is not Van Damme when he’s sabotaging and torpedoing Van Damme’s career.

What Van Damme is trying to say about Van Damme, I think, is that the Van Damme in Double Team is not the real Van Damme. He may look the same. He may have equivalent martial arts ability. But he is not the Van Damme Van Damme is today. 

Cocaine Jean of 1997 lends his glazed presence to the role of Jack Paul Quinn, a seemingly super-human anti-terrorism agent who is brought out of retirement to capture feared arms dealer Stavros (Mickey Rourke). But things go awry and Stavros’ son ends up dead, leading the grief-mad father to take Quinn’s pregnant wife hostage. 

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Ah, but Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mickey Rourke apparently weren’t enough for sensation-crazed audiences in 1997 so the studios brought in a bonus carnivalesque attraction in the form of basketball superstar and gender-bending bad boy Dennis Rodman as androgynous, wise-cracking and saintly weapons specialist Yaz. 

Rodman’s brash attitude, outrageous fashion sense and personal style transcended sports in the mid-1990s. Rodman presented himself not just as a ferocious rebounder but as a larger than life personality, an instant icon, half RuPaul, half Muhammad Ali. 

But where Ali was famously a man of ideas, and a man of passion, there seems to be a distinct emptiness at the core of Rodman’s being and persona, as evidenced by the fact that he’s probably best known these days for palling around with strength-obsessed dictators both foreign (Kim Jong Un) and domestic (Trump). Rodman's headiest, craziest and only idea seemed to be, "Wouldn't it be crazy if, I, a macho dude, dressed like a chick?"

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When Quinn meets Yaz they have the following exchange: 

Quinn: Who does your hair? Siegfried or Roy? 

Yaz: The last guy who made fun of my hair is still trying to pull his head out of his ass. 

Quinn: I don’t want to know about your sex life! 

Yaz: This has been fun. Now who in the hell are you?

When Van Damme stiffly quips “I don’t want to know about your sex life!” he sounds disconcertingly like Tommy Wiseau asking, “Anyway, how’s your sex life?” That’s how stiff and hypnotically awkward the dynamic between Rodman and Van Damme is: they shoot for Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and end up at Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero. 

Yaz is introduced in a silly cartoon of a Eurotrash club dressed like Sexy Spice and adding to his oversized collection of tattoos and piercings. For the first hour of the movie, Rodman is perpetually wearing sunglasses, so as crazy and expressive as his hair and clothing might be, his eyes are covered with glasses and he talks in a word-swallowing mumble so the famously charismatic performer and entertainer comes off as dead onscreen. Whatever magnetism he possesses on the court does not translate to the big screen. 

 That's some good emoting there!

That's some good emoting there!

The winking references to Rodman’s offscreen fame as a basketball player start almost immediately and continue throughout the film. Blue Chips has less talk about offense and defense and hang time, and that actually was about basketball.

If you were to do a shot every time Rodman winkingly references his basketball career you’d be taking your life in your own hands because it literally happens ten to fifteen times. This would make more sense if the filmmakers established that Yaz played professional basketball in Europe before segueing into weapons, or played college ball. That would actually be fairly plausible. It’d actually be too plausible I suppose for a nonsensical cartoon like this so instead we’re treated to the surreal spectacle of Double Team being a basketball movie minus the basketball. 

Quinn returns to active duty to bring in Stavros at a surrealistic carnival in the soaking rain; apparently the arms dealer has a thing for Felliniesque tableaus but things go awry almost from the start. 

Quinn hesitates when he sees that Stavros is meeting with his son and the sneering international heavy takes advantage of his hesitation to unleash a bloodbath of his own that ends up costing his son his life. 

Hark is in his element filming a bravura set-piece rooted in the comic book stylization and hyperbolic melodrama of Hark’s Hong Kong past that follows the action to a hospital’s nursery where Rourke mumbles a monologue about his dead son’s love of his pony in the best neo-Brando tradition before the hero and villain throw each other over and under and around the squealing infants in a battle that concludes with a motherfucking grenade being thrown and Van Damme risking terrible injury to save a baby from a fiery death.  

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It’s rare to see a scene as amateurish and glaringly awful as the Rodman/Van Damme meet awkward followed by one as assured and impressively executed as the set piece that follows but then this scene has the advantage of not having to cater to the limitations of a non-actor like Rodman. 

After Van Damme saves the baby things take a turn for the outlandish. The film abandons its commitment to gritty realism and verisimilitude and basically turns into The Prisoner when Quinn wakes up to find himself in “The Colony”, a lushly appointed prison of sorts for world-class agents like Kelly who are dead to the world and consequently free to join an all-star team of counter-terrorism agents working behind the scenes as the last, best line of defense against global terror. 

Double Team basically turns into the kind of campy spy fodder Austin Powers riffed on as Quinn methodically plans his escape by transforming slowly but surely from a wounded bird still nursing his wounds to the exemplar of sinewy muscled physical perfection Van Damme plays in all of his films. 

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Double Team asks us to believe that Quinn is as formidable a force with his mind as his body and, indeed, that the people behind The Colony snagged him because they wanted his terrorism-fighting expertise and genius, which is one of many bonkers elements of this motion picture. 

Rodman disappears for about a half hour, but when he returns he sticks around until the climax to serve as the world’s wackiest Magical Negro. Yaz is a debauched, amoral weapons dealer who likes Quinn so much he decides to give him an endless series of expensive weapons, under the vague understanding that he will get paid at some point, and then to protect his investment, Yaz continually puts his own life in danger saving Quinn and his family. 

If Rodman and Van Damme’s atrocious banter regularly turns this into a weird quasi-vaudevillian affair (Jean Claude and Dennis Rodman’s Basketball Action Variety Hour!) Mickey Rourke is so committed to the brooding, Brandoesque melodrama of his character’s lust for revenge that you think he’d was doing Tennessee Williams on Broadway, not playing the heavy in what could possibly be the single most gloriously stupid Jean-Claude Van Damme movie ever made, and that includes the one where he played twins and the one where Rob Schneider is his sidekick. 

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Double Team’s climax finds Quinn and Stavros facing off in the colosseum—literally—to determine the fate of Quinn’s squealing baby boy. But that’s not quite enough for Double Team so our hero and villain fight in an arena laden with land mines. But that’s still not enough so Stavros brings out a killer tiger, figuring, reasonably, that between the land mines, the killer tiger and himself, Quinn’s odds of getting out alive are not good. He doesn’t seem to have figured out that his own odds of survival aren’t great either. 

Just when it seems that the film cannot get more exquisitely excessive than the bad guy getting blown up mere seconds before being eviscerated by an enraged tiger Double Team tops itself with a sequence where the Coca Cola bottling company saves the lives of our heroes when Quinn and Yaz—and Quinn’s baby—take shelter behind a Coke vending machine that enables Quinn to survive nuclear-explosion level heat and fire for the third or fourth time over the course of the film.

Rodman wraps things up with even more tortured meta-comedy about how he can’t even imagine the fine he’ll receive for the damage caused by the film’s explosion, a winking reference to the fines Rodman wracked up in large amounts during his basketball playing days. 

“Now it’s my turn to disappear” Yaz promises at the close of the film. In his own screamingly conspicuous way Rodman really did kind of disappear as an entertainer after Double Team and its even less successful follow-up, 1999’s Simon Sez, which paired Rodman with an animated young stand-up comedian named Dane Cook after would-be co-star Robert Downey Jr. bailed at the very last minute. 

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Rodman got the hint and stopped trying to make movies shortly afterwards. And despite Rodman’s promise to disappear he reappears, in audio form at least, as the special guest in a Crystal Waters dance song that plays over the end credits. The songwriters and producers make things as easy as possible for Rodman. He doesn’t have to sing or rap or play any instruments or write the lyrics. All he has to do is mumble some words that are then pushed somewhere down deep in the mix. And he’s still egregiously terrible. Just the worst. A marble-mouthed embarrassment in any form except on the basketball court. 

Double Team was supposed to showcase Dennis Rodman’s rock star charisma and kinky magnetism. Instead it exposed his limitations. It turns out Rodman wasn’t a movie star or a pop star or a renaissance man; he was just a basketball player with a very loud fashion sense and bleached blonde hair. 

Rodman is almost hypnotic in his awfulness. Rodman and Van Damme make for one of film’s all-time worst duos. What Hope & Crosby, Tracy & Hepburn and Martin & Lewis had, they have in reverse. When Rodman and Van Damme are bantering, look closely and you can actually see the Gods of comedy weeping in the background.

Double Team is terrible. And kind of great. To put things in The Flop House terms it’s both good-bad and a movie I kind of liked in spite of Dennis Rodman more than because of him. Then again, his performance is so bad and so stiff and so exquisitely misconceived that it almost comes all the way around and becomes transcendent in its awfulness, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin, which came out the same year. 

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Van Damme might look back at Double Team with regret as something that never fulfilled its potential but I beg to differ. I think it fully realizes its potential, albeit as a crazed cult camp oddity  rather than a mainstream hit. 

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