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.