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.