Jean-Claude Van Damme pulls a ‘Die Hard in a hockey arena’ with director Peter Hyams’ help.
Van Damme is an ex-fireman working security working the big game night at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena where the Stanley Cup is on the line for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Van Damme brings his son and daughter to enjoy this exciting Game 7 and their amongst the seventeen thousand in attendance.
Fortunately, for action fans the excitement doesn’t just stay on the ice. Villainous Powers Boothe rolls in with an army of goons and takes over the arena. They take the Vice-President hostage in his luxurious suite, they wire the whole place with explosives and if they’re not sent a whole lot of money before the hockey game ends they’re bringing the place down.
Well, Van Damme can’t stand for this! With thousands of hockey fans lives in the balance, plus his own daughter being held by Boothe, he vows to take all these baddies out and save the day!
Throwing suspension of disbelief aside, and accepting the outlandishness of all that unfolds, Sudden Death is a pretty fun cheesy B-movie type of actioner. It’s got some entertaining tough action scenes, Boothe relishing every line he spews and piece of scenery he can chew on and Hyams sells the large scale of this sold out setting very well.
Ok, you have to swallow a bit much, but if you’re willing to go with it and allow yourself to accept Van Damme is fighting a lethal penguin mascot, there’s a zamboini filled with bodies and Van Damme manages a game saving goal you’re in a for a senselessly enjoyable Saturday night actioner.
Sudden Death is a clear ‘Die Hard‘ ripoff. At this point in 1995 audiences were seeing the Die Hard formula being used over and over again. It’s success had dramatically reshaped the action film landscape. Action fans were being whisked away with a deluge of ‘Die Hard‘ influenced actioners – (Under Siege, Passenger 57, Cliffhanger, Speed). Sudden Death is no different. It’s got all the earmarks of knowing it’s ‘Die Hard in a hockey arena’. Sudden Death follows the recipe to a tee.
Action fans know the drill – an average guy hero unexpectedly faces off against a clever baddie with a lot of deadly pals in a single location with innocent lives hanging in the balance including the hero’s loved ones. The hero is outnumbered, all alone and spoils the well laid out plans by the bad guys. The hero gets into a lot of movie action as a clock ticks down for an explosive finale.
We watch step-by-step how this collection of baddies gain control of this hockey arena, manage their way into the Vice President’s suite and Boothe confidently makes his demands while the authorities remain helpless. They’ve thought of everything – except our lone hero!
Van Damme gets wind of this sinister plot. His daughter gets taken by Boothe and now Van Damme has a personal motivation to do whatever he can to spoil Boothe’s plan and get to him. He runs around the arena, disarming C4 explosives, fighting off an endless stream of baddies with his fists, bullets and makeshift weapons.
Rinse and repeat Die Hard style.
Hyams keeps it all moving at a quick pace to keep the questions of logic at a minimum. For a movie of this type, I figure if you sign up for it you have to accept the premise, no matter how outlandish it seems, to get to the fun payoffs.
And they do come.
Van Damme has a brutal fight in a kitchen where all manor of dangerous instruments come into play (knifes, grills, slicers, boiling oil,). He has a deadly run-in in the players locker room, he runs for his life through the seats of oblivious fans, he actually finds himself playing in the hockey game and fights on top of the arena where he dangles high above the ice.
Yep, it’s all ludicrous stuff – and entertaining. Van Damme hasn’t had a career with a lot of peaks. I always thought of him as a comfy B-movie staple, more aligned with Steven Segal and Chuck Norris, rather than Stallone or Schwarzenegger. He got successful with cheaper martial arts films (Bloodsport, Kickboxer) and tried to branch out to more mainstream success that didn’t last very long.
It was in that period of the mid-90’s he made Timecop and Sudden Death (both directed by Hyams) and were Van Damme’s most successful mainstream hits. Sudden Death is one of his best and most polished films on his resumé. I also have a soft spot for Hard Target. That one I consider a delicious cheesy B-movie classic.
Van Damme comes off well in Sudden Death as the everyman hero. He’s likable and certainly carries the action scenes fine. His one-liners and dialogue are a bit lacking though.
Van Damme fans might be disappointed his signature high kicking isn’t highlighted. Those balletic high kicks really don’t go with his ex-fireman character, although I don’t think his fans would have minded seeing them on display whether it was reasonable this fire marshal could do such feats or not.
The supporting cast simply lend support where it’s needed without much flair. They come and go fairly quickly, do their part and don’t leave much of an impression.
Dorian Harewood is Hallmark (that’s his character’s name to get to one very predictable line) the lead FBI guy and Van Damme’s ally – or is he? Raymond J. Barry (who I always like) is the VP. Van Damme’s pair of kids I never thought were very good in this, so they just function as his personal stake in the proceedings. It’s kind of interesting to see Audra Lindley pop up and get iced by a bad guy towards the beginning of the movie. Yep, a bad guy kills Mrs. Roper.
Boothe is the real standout and will hold your attention between the bursts of action. He takes hold of his bad guy character and doesn’t let go, milking every moment of shooting some poor hostage, eating some shrimp or cooly making threats and picking up his detonator. He’s a blast to watch!
Boothe’s death via a helicopter crashing onto the arena ice is so over-the-top absurd (its quite similar to John Lithgow’s demise in Cliffhanger) it’s quite the knee-slapper ending, but at that point you’ve either enjoyed Sudden Death up to that point where you’ll laugh along with it or you’ve been rolling your eyes for the last hundred minutes and that bombastic ending will really make you shake your head. I guess having the bad guy die in a chopper crash was quite the trendy thing at the time.
Netflix did a recent remake of Sudden Death starring Michael Jai White called Welcome to Sudden Death. The film takes place during a basketball game. I’m not sure why they would use the term ‘Sudden Death’ for it, since its double meaning goes with hockey and not basketball, but I guess it’s just too catchy a title to not use. It’s certainly more exciting sounding than calling the movie ‘Free Throw’.
The remake is not good and is a comical bargain basement version of the 1995 film. Other than one locker room fight there’s no real engaging action in it. They practically already remade Sudden Death with 2018’s Final Score starring Dave Bautista, i.e. ‘Die Hard in a football stadium’. That one was better done than the remake.
The scenarios for this are endless. Just pick a sport!
Sudden Death is a replicated rehash of things action fans have seen before (and probably will continue to see be done), but it’s done with skill, some flair, no apologies, some entertaining action scenes from Van Damme and Boothe having a grand time holding court as the big bad villain. It’s one of Van Damme’s best films.
Watch Van Damme kick a giant penguin mascot’s ass