This is one of those movies I haven’t watched since the 1990’s, but I remember liking it a lot. In watching it again, it’s amazing just how much of it I remember, which is a hell of a lot. This might seem like an under the radar action movie, especially since it couldn’t even earn back half of its $8 million budget upon its theatrical release, but boasting a cast of Christopher Lambert, Mario Van Peebles, Denis Leary, and Patrick Stewart, it’s got respectable muscle. That’s one thing that always struck me strongly about Gunmen in addition to Lambert and Van Peebles teaming up as buddies in this, and then, portraying enemies the following year in the third Highlander movie. So, let’s see what Gunmen has to offer that I find so vastly entertaining.
A bounty hunter, Cole Parker (Mario Van Peebles), and a con man, Dani Servigo (Christopher Lambert), each have half the clues to the whereabouts of a $400 million treasure of stolen drug money. Against their wills they are forced to team up to battle an elite squad of mafia assassins employed by the wheelchair bound Loomis (Patrick Stewart), and led by the ruthless Armor O’Malley (Denis Leary). If Cole and Dani survive a relentless chase across a jungle and two continents, they will have to face each other because a half billion dollars is not enough to share.
Gunmen is a fun action film, but one with heart, character, and dramatic weight. This all comes to us from Deran Sarafian, the director of Death Warrant, and screenwriter Stephen Sommers, who would go on to director Deep Rising, The Mummy, and various other fun big action movies. This seems to be a really good pairing. Sommers’ writing creates a fun concept with strong characters and his signature dashes of fun and humor. Sarafian grounds the movie with a real grit which mixes serious consequence with a thrilling ride. He makes it a harder edged action movie than Sommers typically would make, and that style perfectly works for this film. Plus, I like that the film hits the ground running dropping us into events already in motion as everyone is already on the trail of Dani and the money. That rhythm and tempo remains constant throughout the film propelling every event forward briskly. There’s very little slowing down in Gunmen, and because of that, these filmmakers are able to tightly pack a lot of exciting content into the 90 minute runtime.
I also really like that this film is a bunch of criminals, mercenaries, thieves, and bounty hunters running amuck. There’s not a law enforcement presence anywhere at all. Lots of betrayals, distrust, and personal agendas twist the plot around making it fun and interesting. This keeps every character on their toes, and allows for some spontaneous moments of drama and humor to occur that just add to the fun factor. At its core, Gunmen is a buddy action film headed up by an incredibly perfectly pair of actors who give it vibrant life.
Frankly, any movie where Christopher Lambert is having a good time is a winner for me just on entertainment value alone. His character of Dani Servigo is full of laughs all the way. Where Mario Van Peebles is the straight arrow and dramatic anchor of the duo, Lambert is the comedy, but is not farcical. These two have excellent chemistry together, and Van Peebles is able to get his fair share of humor into the mix. Once they spark off that chemistry, the film becomes more and more fun. The banter between them made me laugh so much. It’s a real delight. And Van Peebles really shows a lot of worth leading this film with a strong weight, charisma, and edge. Cole Parker is a definite tough bounty hunter able to hold his own against anyone, and is portrayed as a very smart, sharp, and cunning professional. Yet, while there’s a lot of fun, Gunmen still finds those quiet moments of character building and heart-to-heart scenes to maintain substance. Cole and Dani solidly bond together, but they still have their fun adversarial moments such as Dani shooting Cole in the leg to keep him from running off with the money and Cole later returning the favor to sharp, clever comic effect.
I severely love Denis Leary. He is a great comedian, but he has always impressed me with his dramatic work. I especially love his turns in Judgment Night and Suicide Kings, and here, he plays vicious bastard immensely effectively. Leary’s cynical humor is perfectly molded into an edgy, charismatic, sadistic, and bad ass villain. Armor O’Malley is a perfect mercenary out for himself, and willing to double-cross anyone for his own betterment. Leary’s sarcastic charisma fuels the performance and makes Armor an entertaining enemy all the way through.
Patrick Stewart’s role as Loomis is not expansive, but by no doubt, is solidly portrayed. You see this feeble man in body and mind ordering around Armor and his hired guns, and you can perceive someone who once had a strength and authority to him. However, age and circumstance have diminished him, and his sad double-cross departure in the film seems only inevitable. With Stewart in this role, it certainly adds a special notoriety to the character which elevates Loomis’ importance in the plot.
Lambert, Van Peebles, and Leary, along with many of their supporting co-stars, prove to be very action capable actors. As the title suggests, there is a very generous amount of intense gunplay and shootouts packed into the film, but there’s plenty of physicality and stunt work to behold. There’s loads of excitement throughout especially when helicopters are involved. That tight pace I mentioned before completely adds to the exciting momentum of the action. It just keeps on coming allowing for very little time to slow down, but it does have it s well timed breaths between the blazing thrills. The climax has everyone in a sort of cat-and-mouse game aboard a luxury motor boat, and it is very cleverly and sharply executed. I love how this is all shot keeping this a little shadowy to give the sequence some visual edge. Overall, the film is really damn well shot in the cinemascope anamorphic format from the director of photography of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The quality of the cinematography really enhances every fun, thrilling moment of Gunmen.
I also really enjoyed the score by John Debney. Since the film is set in South America, we get some Latin flavor in the music that blends in beautifully with Spanish guitars and percussion. The action scenes have some very good and original driving beats which hold to that musical style. It’s really a wonderful piece of work from the man who would later score Sudden Death, Sin City, Predators, and Iron Man 2. This film also incorporates a lot of early-to-mid 90’s hip hop / rap music very well. It’s surely not my genre of music, but they are all very good songs which aid the vibe the film is going for. After all these years, the opening title track of “Bite The Bullet” by Kid Frost has stuck firmly in my mind, and I think that says quite a lot.
I honestly think I enjoyed Gunmen more now than I did years ago. It really is a solid, fun, enjoyable action movie with a fully charismatic cast that doesn’t disappoint. There’s near wall-to-wall action with a full helping of laughter between Lambert and Van Peebles’ superb chemistry. There are only a few films that really exemplify my preferred style of 1990’s action films, and this is definitely one of them. Really tight pacing with a grounded sensibility that still has its tone opened up for great fun. The film doesn’t get cheesy or diminish the grit of its action by adding in those humorous elements. It all works very cohesively for a well-rounded piece of entertainment. This is just a movie of pure enjoyment right from the start and it only builds as it progresses. While Gunmen got the shaft on DVD in the United States as a pan-and-scan edition, I was very pleased to find it on iTunes in its proper widescreen format for purchase or rental in standard or high definition. If you’re looking for a really solidly made action film with intense excitement and a lot of laughs, you really cannot go wrong with Gunmen. I give it a very strong recommendation.
I’ve made some mentions of the Die Hard clone in recent months in reviews of Sudden Death, Olympus Has Fallen, and more. Now, just because you’re the first do something, or the one who sets the trend doesn’t always mean you did it best. However, in the case of John McTiernan’s blockbuster action film Die Hard, there is simply no equal. While I don’t list it as my number one favorite of all time, I cannot deny that this is likely the best action movie ever made, and there are a lot of qualities that go into making it that exceptionally awesome.
NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party. However, as he waits for the festivities to end, the entire building is taken over by a heavily armed team perceived as terrorists, but their sinister leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reveals that his interest is purely in greed. As the hostages are rounded up, McClane slips away with only his service revolver and his cunning wits at his disposal. What begins as a perfectly planned crime quickly ignites into McClane waging a one man war to save everyone before they are all blown sky high.
There are many things that set Die Hard apart from everything else, but I think the biggest key of it are the characters. Beyond just the performances, this film takes its time to introduce them to you, and allow for their dynamics and personalities to play out before any of the action begins. This is mainly the development between John and Holly McClane. Their turbulent marriage is fleshed out in smart, subtle beats that never feel like exposition, just natural conversation. These are real, relatable people in a grounded reality with normal problems that are soon thrust into an extraordinary situation, and because we get to know these characters through levity and emotional conflict, we care greatly about them once peril befalls them. Even the villains are given their due time to feel fleshed out and dimensional such as how Hans Gruber discusses men’s suits, art, and culture with Takagi before threatening him with a gun for the password to his vault. These moments make Gruber an interesting and engaging villain who has a fairly equal amount of depth to John McClane. This way, it is also a battle of wits and personalities as much as it is a pure action conflict. This is so much due to the time director John McTiernan and his screenwriters took to slip those important character building moments into the film, and that makes it a greatly more substantive action film that you would regularly get in any decade.
Now, the 1980’s were filled with the larger than life, nigh indestructible action hero. Then, comes along John McClane. This guy who is as vulnerable as the rest of us that gets beaten up, his feet sliced up by glass, bleeds everywhere, feels fear, and gets progressively worse for wear as the film goes on. All the while, under the intense stress of a violent life or death scenario, he’s cracking wise with everyone left and right just doing what he can to cope and survive. Where a Rambo or John Matrix type would just burst in blazing a full arsenal to wipe out everyone, McClane has to be clever and cautious every step of the way against these extremely well-armed killers. All he has is his wits, and Bruce Willis’ well established comedic talents blended perfectly into the quick witted quips of McClane. I’m sure there was speculation abound leading up to this film’s release as to Willis’ ability to be an action hero because of doing so many comedies, but he was able to bring a completely unique identity to this role that is hard to match. While it is the wisecracks that we remember so much, the purely human moments of drama really sell this character as one that stands apart from so many others. Bruce Willis really shows that he could do the full spectrum of acting here as he leads this film with charisma, heart, and physical intensity. He brings a fresh dimension and grounded realism to McClane that makes him the beloved, very human, bad ass icon that we so love.
Just how McClane is a distinct departure from the action heroes of the day, Hans Gruber distinguishes himself from many of the over the top, cheesy villains of the 80’s. Alan Rickman is brilliant as Hans Gruber. What truly makes this so is that he’s not obvious at all. Gruber is a guy who is smart, charming, smooth, educated, and charismatic. Yet, he’s a calculated, clever, ruthless villain. You can see that Gruber had every single detail of this plan plotted out perfectly, and is able to outsmart and keep ahead of everyone except for the one wild card in his brilliant crime in John McClane. As much of an sociopathic, murderous villain as Gruber is, you can be thoroughly entertained by the charisma and intelligence Alan Rickman injects into him, but you still rejoice when McClane finally does him in.
A little unexpected humor arises from the less than sharp minded LAPD and FBI. Paul Gleason’s Chief Robinson is clearly in over his head exercising clear incompetence while thinking he’s got everything under control. Then, FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson, a joke in and of itself, are too full of themselves with their gung ho testosterone to be perceptive enough to know when they’re being played. Add in more competent, yet still funny characters like Argyle the limo driver and Theo, Hans’ charismatic safe cracker, you’ve got laughs for miles without damaging the serious integrity of the action and drama of the movie. This is seriously one of the most quotable action movies ever.
Yet, amidst all the explosive thrills and well-timed humor, we get the tether of humanity with Sergeant Al Powell. Reginald VelJohnson connects perfectly in this role bringing the tired, wounded, and alone McClane into contact with someone on the outside who can be a moral and emotional support. An action film is great when the thrills are exciting and bombastic, but you get something exceptional when this thread of humanity is so strongly in place. VelJohnson gives us the full spectrum from lovable and funny to heartfelt and compassionate to stern conviction. Powell is ultimately given some depth and substance showing that this film wasn’t going to take a shortcut anywhere at all. The very human moments between Powell and McClane are a special strength.
But indeed, the action is ultimately the driving force of this movie, and once that spark of excitement is lit, it runs on pure adrenalin with riveting intensity and masterful execution. This is big action with a real sense of gravity and peril. The scale makes it amazingly fun and exciting while the weight of the drama makes it suspenseful and electrifying. I love the subplot with Karl’s vendetta against McClane for the murder of his brother, and when the two finally clash, it’s awesome. After all of the heavy gunfire and explosions, the few minutes of visceral raw physicality are a breath of fresh air before the scale of the action escalates further with the roof exploding signaling the third act rocketing forward. Die Hard does nothing but amaze you at every turn. Every step of the way, we care about these characters in the thick of danger, and we gradually see it escalate as Gruber’s plan unfolds. It’s also great seeing McClane figure things out a little at a time, such as wondering why Hans was on the roof, and then, realizing he plans to blow it sky high with all the hostages on it.
I tend to write these reviews while watching the movie so to pick up on all the nuances, but Die Hard is so consistently engaging, thrilling, and entertaining that I could hardly tear my attention away to type anything up. Whether it is the absolutely wickedly awesome action, the touching character building moments, or the great laughs it elicits from an audience, Die Hard is the perfect example of executing an action film correctly. There’s not a moment wasted, and the editing is dead-on sharp and perfect in its pacing and timing. Moments are so excellently punctuated with the right cut, and even more so with Michael Kamen’s remarkably intense and spectacular score. His is a masterwork of brilliant, sophisticated action film compositions. Not to mention, this is an expertly shot movie using those beautiful anamorphic lenses and that cinemascope widescreen canvas to accentuate the scale of the action. And where many action films today can barely keep the camera steady long enough to understand the geography of a single scene, McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont do so many subtle things to layout the geography of this entire building. Early on, they walk you through the entire central area of the Nokatomi Tower over the opening credits so you understand where the hallways, elevator, offices, and stairway are so we can navigate it as competently as the characters. As the film goes on, we revisit the conference room, the elevator shafts, and the roof to maintain a familiar environment for the action. As a film lover and a filmmaker myself, this movie just makes me gush from a technical standpoint as it is so perfectly executed in every moment. This film is exquisitely made from a massively talented team of filmmakers, sonic geniuses, and brilliant visual artists.
This film was adapted from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and many of the mind blowing and clever moments in the film are taken directly from the novel. McClane’s jump from the exploding roof with the fire hose wrapped around him, the C-4 bomb thrown down the elevator shaft, and more exist in Thorp’s novel. Apparently, it was a novel written as a sequel to The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, but he declined the role. Years later, it was supposedly intended as a sequel to Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being re-fashioned into the action classic that we now know and love. Indeed, everything has its right time to come to fruition, and Die Hard happened in the right way at the right time with the right talent.
Between this and Predator, John McTiernan established himself as one of the premiere action movie directors of the time, and of course, this launched Bruce Willis into blockbuster super stardom. Despite how Willis now feels about doing action movies, saying he’s bored with them at this point, we will always have these pinnacles of the genre when Willis was in his prime and eager to do his absolute best. Die Hard is probably the most perfect action movie I have ever seen as it hits all of the beats of excitement and character just right with a spot-on mix of drama and humor to make it an undeniably memorable experience. For anyone who has only ever seen either the fourth or fifth film in this franchise, you are doing a horrible disservice to yourself in basing the quality of Die Hard on those films. As I said from the start, there is simply no equal.
Yep, I could make a whole month out of reviewing Die Hard clones before even getting around to reviewing Die Hard. Seagal, Van Damme, Snipes, Ford, and every other action star under the sun got their turn to grapple with this formula. So, Thomas Ian Griffith got his chance as Detective Jack Wild in this film that spawned two sequels, neither of which starred Griffith, but let’s see how Crackerjack stacks up to the competition.
Chicago cop Jack Wild (Thomas Ian Griffith) reluctantly aggress to join his brother’s family for a vacation at the exclusive Panorama Springs Hotel, high in the glacier-capped Rocky Mountains. But when a team of mercenaries determined to hijack over $50 million in diamonds descend on the resort, Jack strikes back. Now, together with beautiful hotel guide K.C. (Nastassja Kinski), Jack must race against the clock to stop their calculating leader Ivan Getz (Christopher Plummer) from getting away and exploding the glacier above the hotel to cover his tracks.
The burnt out cop is a very familiar trope in action movies, but if you get an actor who can really flesh out the character, it all works nicely. Thomas Ian Griffith again proves his quality as an actor showing Detective Wild to be relatable and interesting. Being a bit unhinged, he charges headlong into danger as if he does have nothing to lose, and that’s how he feels after his wife and kids were killed. When he’s dragged up to the ski resort, he’s restless and still potentially volatile, but after making a connection with Katia, you see him soften and begin to turn a corner. Griffith and Nastassja Kinski have some good, touching chemistry that translates really well on screen. The charisma he naturally brings into the film really enhances the clichéd material in the script, and makes Wild a dimensional and enjoyable character to follow.
The film really does a lot to build up the emotional investment in Jack Wild’s fractured situation. The flashbacks to the last moments of his family’s life are touching, and director Michael Mazo really takes the time for those emotions to sink in. The reveal of who actually killed his family is a rather unneeded additional motivation for Wild, but I’m hardly going to hold that against the movie. It’s not striving for fresh, original ideas as there is much lifted directly from Die Hard from the basic premise to very similar bits of dialogue, Getz’ right hand mercenary looking like a carbon copy of Karl, Getz threatening to kill an innocent man to motivate Wild to return the diamonds, and him planning to wipe out all the witnesses with a cataclysmic explosion. However, the filmmakers still manage to make this a very fun and entertaining ride despite how by-the-numbers and uninspired this script is. Much of this is due to some impressive action scenes, and the villain that we are given here.
I love Christopher Plummer. He’s an absolutely tremendous actor in so many compelling roles, but you know what? I think every serious, respectable actor deserves to take on a nicely cheesy villain role at least once. As Ivan Getz, I think he just eats up the fun quality of the role, and does make for an intimidating adversary even if so much is clearly lifted from Alan Richman’s Hans Gruber. The rather stereotypical German accent is the most obvious evidence, but it adds to the film’s B-movie charm. Getz separates himself from Gruber, though, by being a bit of a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur akin to the Third Reich. It allows Plummer to have some intriguing monologues that kind of gives you flashbacks to him as General Chang in Star Trek VI, and that’s generally not a bad thing. Plummer and Griffith have some solid exchanges that build up the personal adversarial connection, mostly done over a two-way radio, and it’s enough fuel to keep the movie going at its consistent, good pace.
Crackerjack is indeed action packed, but features far more gunplay than Griffith’s martial arts skills, much like Van Damme in Sudden Death. However, this is still plenty exciting with big, explosive moments and fun thrills up and down this high altitude adventure. Despite being a direct-to-video feature, the action set pieces are quite impressive, especially when the helicopters blow up, and the finale has some really good miniature effects. For its time, this was a quite admirable action picture, but I would expect modern audiences to be left wanting more spectacle.
Now, if there’s one thing that makes Crackerjack feel distinctly direct-to-video it’s the synthesizer score. Absolutely, a completely synth based score can be excellent. I’m a Jan Hammer Miami Vice fan after all, but there’s a difference when you have a score that is primarily composed for an orchestral arrangement but is performed on a keyboard. After a while, it got to be almost distracting because I kept feeling like I was watching something from Full Moon Features like Subspecies. The score just sounds cheap in this context, and really detracts from the otherwise high production values here. If this score had been given an orchestral treatment, it would have been perfectly fine. There are times when the score works very well, but the obvious limitations do regularly show through.
You could maybe say the same for the cinematography as it is fairly point and shoot with very little in the way of special cinematic visuals. There’s nothing along the lines of crane shots, intriguing angles, or steadicam work, but compared to a lot of shaky cam action films today, I can find that more minimalist approach to be enjoyable. The action scenes are very competently shot, and you’re never confused as to what’s happening. The editing is conservative allowing the action to drive the cuts, and not forcing kinetic excitement by cutting to another shot every split second. Fast tempo editing definitely has its gold standards, but I do enjoy seeing a time when filmmakers did take their time to just allow the action to play out with more comfortable framing and stable camera work.
Crackerjack certainly doesn’t have the budgetary muscle to compete on the scale of its theatrical brethren, but I would say it’s good action B-movie indulgence. Griffith does a very good job in this role making him both an emotionally damaged man, but also a sleek, sharp, and savvy action hero. He brings his natural charisma into the mix to make Jack Wild a really enjoyable protagonist to follow through this perilous adventure. Again, if I’m examining this small window into his career, I can’t say that this could’ve been a breakout film even if it did have a theatrical release budget. The script is very derivative of possibly the best action movie ever made, aiming entirely for the low budget fare, and doesn’t inject anything fresh into the formula. You can definitely get entertainment value out of the film’s fairly well used clichés and the fun performances. If you need any further convincing, you can check out the very funny video that introduced me to this movie courtesy of TheCinemaSnob.com.
The 1990’s brought us a wild trend in action movies – the Die Hard clone. They were formulaic films that put our action hero protagonist into a confined structure or perilous location, whether it be a battleship, airplane, bus, train, cruise ship, or mountain, and pit him against a team of highly trained terrorists, mercenaries, or what have you. People are taken hostage, and our hero has to battle to save them against impossible odds. Just like with the slasher craze of the 80’s, there were good results and poor results. Considering Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and Wesley Snipes got their turns, it was inevitable that Jean-Claude Van Damme got his, and for him, the stage is an ice hockey arena. So, is this a good result or a poor one?
Arson investigator and former fire-fighter Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) has his daughter suddenly taken alongside the Vice President of the United States (Raymond J. Barry) during the Stanley Cup Championship game in Pittsburgh. With the captors, led by the lethal Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe), demanding a billion dollars by game’s end, McCord frantically sets a plan in motion to rescue his daughter and abort an impending explosion before the final buzzer.
Sudden Death had good talent behind it with some nice turns in the plot, but the lack of ambition becomes apparent after not too long. It never gets clever with the formula, and does feel like a weak imitation of Die Hard with thieves who appear to be terrorists and even our hero communicating with people on the outside. The clichés of the genre can work to great effect if you have the right wit and charisma behind it, but ultimately, it’s the fault of the underwhelming screenplay by a guy who originally wrote this as an action comedy parody. Considering his screenwriting credits include several Police Academy movies as well as the all-out action parody movie Loaded Weapon 1, it’s no surprise that was his intention, and no surprise that he was unable to move the serious incarnation of the script beyond its stereotypical trappings.
Van Damme’s fairly good in the movie. At no point does he slack off, but the script doesn’t give him a great deal to work with. Darren McCord isn’t written to showcase much stress, anxiety, or emotional strain. He certainly has a desperate determination about him, but he generally maintains his cool. Still, Van Damme brings a solid, grounded weight of drama, and a dash of humanity that makes McCord likable and relatable. This is a regular strength for Van Damme. He comes off like an average yet capable guy who has enough intelligence to pull him through these extraordinary circumstances. It’s a rather stock protagonist giving us nothing exceptional or memorable, but Van Damme gives us a good quality performance, regardless.
Powers Boothe gives us a pretty intimidating heavy. He’s cold and entirely ruthless as he casually murders his hostages. Boothe is an actor who’s always carried a lot of weight and presence on screen, and there’s no exception here. So, he is an effective villain, but again, in terms of writing, there’s not much to Joshua Foss. I hate to make the comparison to Die Hard, let alone Hans Gruber, because that is such a uniquely excellent movie and villain, but while we never got much of a back story on Hans, we entirely understood his motivations, intentions, and psychological attitudes. Foss doesn’t give us much aside from the knowledge that he himself is an active duty Secret Service Agent just looking for a hefty payout. It adds a little something to his character by putting him a few steps ahead of the Vice President’s entourage, but on the whole, he just seems like a generic villain with little depth or purpose given to his actions. Foss doesn’t get much opportunity to appear cunning or sharply ingenious, but he is played by an extraordinary actor who makes him appear to be more than he is on paper.
As is the standard for a film shot and directed by Peter Hyams, it has a great moody, almost noir atmosphere through the use of strong shadows, a realistic texture of grit, and strong contrast lighting. I just love how his films look, and I can just tell when it is his artistic eye as cinematographer. It’s a beautiful signature look that creates visual dramatic weight, and it works excellently in this film as it does all his others. Everything is shot with great cinematic sensibilities. The most impressive shot is near the climax when Van Damme is hanging from the opening dome roof. The shot cranes from the action on the ice all the way up to the roof in one beautiful shot. The picture is also very well edited with a solid rhythm and pace that allows the action to carry the momentum of the picture.
The hockey game sequences, which are between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, don’t really add much to the momentum of the story except to give us a ticking clock. There are definitely films out there that I would levy criticism against for employing such a cheap storytelling tactic, but Hyams is able to make that tactic work really damn well. Intercutting between that and McCord diffusing one of the bombs, using some tight framing and good, tense music, it results in a reasonably taut moment. Yet, these are fleeting and few moments. They are necessary to the plot, but aren’t given as much focused attention as the movie goes on. The best instance is when the hockey game does go into the obligatory sudden death overtime, delaying the inevitable while McCord is in no position to diffuse the additional bombs.
The action scenes are okay, but do get bigger and better as the film goes on. The stakes increase, and the set pieces become larger and more perilous. Unfortunately, you won’t get your fill of Van Damme martial arts awesomeness here. There’s almost none. While I can surely understand that someone of McCord’s profession wouldn’t realistically have those masterful martial arts skills, if you’re going to see a Van Damme movie, you expect to see that stuff. Still, Van Damme throws himself fully into these action scenes, and clearly does his own stunts, which add quite a bit to the quality of these scenes. The actual climax is all right with McCord and Foss battling on the catwalk as Foss attempts to escape via helicopter. There’s a nice crash and burn ending, but it didn’t grab me. The film just didn’t give me enough emotional investment to engross my attention. It might be because Foss is almost too laid back of a villain, and we don’t get that vile aggressive quality that would amp up the intensity to give us a major pay-off. Even in Under Siege, we get some charismatic villains that energize the film and invite our desire to see them meet a violent demise. This film doesn’t give us this much, and settles for okay in far too many places. The action is good but rarely anything exceptional, and on the whole, the film is largely forgettable. Domestically, it earned only $20 million out of its $35 million budget, and that about accurately reflects the appeal of the movie. It doesn’t have blockbuster written on it. The talent was certainly there to potentially make it a better action movie, but it clearly starts with the script in this case, which has “not trying” over almost all of it.
If you’re just looking for a movie that will decently satisfy your desire for some late night action, like I was, I think Sudden Death is far from your worst choice. Yet, it is no more than average or mediocre. The hero nor the villain are memorable in the least, despite the best efforts of Van Damme and Powers Boothe, and those are two essential elements of a Die Hard clone. Even just based on action movie standards, it’s no better. Van Damme has done much better movies. Basically, any action capable actor could’ve been cast as Darren McCord, and we would’ve had the same movie. Aside from the little dashes of humanity Van Damme adds in, there’s nothing distinct he brings to the movie, especially with the absence of martial arts action. Also, while I should criticize the fact that Foss waits until game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, a game that wouldn’t even be guaranteed to happen until a day, maybe two, before it happened, to unleash this wildly complex plan of strategically placed explosives, hostage taking, and infiltration, it’s hard to apply that much logic to an action film of this sort. As weakly stereotypical as this movie is, that large gap in logic is hardly the bulk of its shortcomings.
If you do want to check out the movie, avoid the solo DVD release as it is pan-and-scan. Sudden Death was not given the widescreen treatment on DVD here in Region 1 until the release of the Van Damme Four Film Set alongside Hard Target, Lionheart, & The Quest. Sudden Death has been made available in full high-definition widescreen through various video-on-demand services. I was able to watch this in what I call “partial widescreen” via HBO. What I mean by that is the channel broadcasts the film in a 16×9 widescreen format, but it still chops off part of the full 2.35:1 anamorphic frame. Overall, Sudden Death is not at all a bad action movie, but even for a Van Damme / Peter Hyams movie, it’s still inferior to Timecop, which was a lot more fun even if the script was full of holes from its time travel plot paradoxes.