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.
Time travel is the biggest pain in the backside to comprehend. It can become circular logical trying to make sense of the contradictions, continuity resolutions, and potential paradoxes. Timecop certainly has these problems due to half thought-out ideas, but where these issues would normally sour the entire film to me, Timecop has just enough entertainment value to dwarf those concerns. Peter Hyams, who shot and directed this film, clearly deserves much credit for bringing the right talents and elements together to achieve a result that is satisfying on all other levels.
In 1994, time travel is made possible, and upon learning of this, the U.S. government forms a confidential agency called the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) to police time itself, and prevent changes in the past. Washington, D.C. police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) accepts an assignment to this new agency, but on this very day, he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) are attacked. This results in Melissa’s death and the destruction of their home. Ten years later, Max Walker grieves still, but has become a respected TEC Agent. Max ends up having to take in Atwood, his own ex-partner, for tampering with the past with the stock market. When coxed about who hired him to do this, the name Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is named, but Atwood refuses to testify to this fearing for the lives of his family. McComb is a presidential candidate who has been stealing from the past to fund his campaign so that he can essentially buy the presidency. McComb quickly learns of Walker’s knowledge, and continually seeks to eliminate him and shut down the TEC entirely. Max becomes determined to expose the Senator’s criminal actions, which come to include multiple murders, but his TEC superior, Matuzak (Bruce McGill) keeps Max from going too far without evidence to support his claims. However, all things become interwoven as McCombs’ manipulative plans take Walker back to 1994 where his past and future come into peril. Can Max change history before it repeats itself?
There is just something about the old action heroes that is missing today. While Jean-Claude Van Damme has amazing physical ability with remarkable martial arts talent, he also has plenty of charisma and heart to really make his roles empathetic. He gives them enough dimension and charm to be someone an audience can thoroughly enjoy watching. The young Max Walker is a warm, light-hearted man with a lot of passion and love. The older Max Walker is more rough around the edges. He’s a lonelier man that is very dedicated to his job, and takes his commitment to it very seriously. He has a strong ethical and moral center that doesn’t allow him to back down from McComb. Still, he retains the charm and wit of his younger self, but with a tinge of conviction. Van Damme plays both versions nicely, and keeps an emotional connective tissue between them. He carries the film with plenty of heart, humor, and dramatic weight. He also has excellent chemistry with his co-stars.
Primarily among them is the late Ron Silver who made for an excellent cold blooded villain as McComb. His charisma is very sharp as he commands the screen with intelligence and conviction. He is very imposing and intimidating. McComb is a man driven by the need for power, and everyone in his path towards it is expendable. With the advantage of time travel, he can essentially prevent anyone from ever existing, but in some cases, he hardly sees a need to be so severe. He also doesn’t mind doing his own dirty work. He just can’t do it all himself. The younger Senator McComb has ambition and vision, but is not hardened, yet. His elder presidential candidate self is very cutthroat. Silver brings immense weight to the picture that fuels the dogged motivation in Van Damme’s performance. The two have very good chemistry playing off one another many times in the film. They have a very effective counterbalance that keeps the movie compelling and entertaining. They exchange several sharp, humorous remarks that entirely fit their characters, and maintain a tension between Walker and McComb that injects urgency into the plot.
I am continually impressed by Bruce McGill’s talent. I was first introduced to him on MacGyver as the humorous con man Jack Dalton, but since then, I have seen the vast range and depth he is capable of. From roles in The Insider, Collateral, The Last Boy Scout, Quantum Leap, and a very memorable episode of Miami Vice, I can seriously say that he is one of the best character actors around. As Matuzak, he holds his ground very easily as Walker’s boss with the weight of authority and a quick witted levity. He cares a good deal about Max, but he always keeps his priorities and responsibilities in check. He never lets his friendship compromise his position, at least, not until circumstances become desperate and Matuzak has to stretch his trust in Walker. McGill and Van Damme also have thoroughly entertaining chemistry that livens up the film, smartly. Walker and Matuzak are good, tusted friends with a lot of history behind them which adds to the depth of the story. Van Damme and McGill reflect that nicely giving the film some funny interactions that only a couple of good, long time friends could offer up.
Mia Sara is beautiful beyond just the physical. As Melissa, you have zero trouble believing in Max’s deep love for her. She’s compassionate, seductive, and lovely. The love for Max is always in her eyes, and definitely connects through to an audience. Mia Sara projects every emotion with heart-gripping depth. Her interactions with Jean-Claude are wonderful, as are all the relationships in the film. The whole cast really does a superb job playing off one another, hitting the right dramatic and tonal marks. The performances are very consistent and complementary. It’s almost surprising, but pleasantly so.
The visual effects are kind of mixed. The optical composites putting two Van Dammes or two Ron Silvers into the same frame at the same time are generally pretty good, and the time travel “ripple” effect is well done. There is also a wicked cool moment where Walker kicks the young McComb in the face, and then, the scar from it morphs onto the face of the older McComb. These little flourishes are exceptionally nice, and add some originality to the film. However, the more complex digital effects are rather primitive. I can only imagine this was due to budgetary constraints. CGI was likely still highly expensive in 1994 as only Steven Spielberg and James Cameron blockbusters got to make elaborate use of them. This wasn’t Industrial Light & Magic at work here. While there are only two such moments in the movie, one of which is a very critical moment that I cannot say how it will affect your enjoyment if you’re just watching Timecop now for the first time. I’ve known what to expect since Timecop originally hit VHS in the mid-1990s, and so, it doesn’t bother me at all. For a modern audience, it might be a sour note.
Finally discovering and getting my hands on the first ever widescreen release of this film on DVD, I can properly enjoy the wonderful cinematography by Peter Hyams (who also directed the feature). I can definitely tell it was shot by him due to the use of contrast through heavy light and shadow. The movie has plenty of visual atmosphere, but it never goes too far. There’s a certain noir aspect to much of Hyams’ lighting and cinematography in addition to my beloved 2.35:1 aspect ratio that give Timecop some solid production values. It also gives the film some distinctive identity and edgy dramatic weight. Hyams captures and directs the action very, very well. He has his pacing and composition crafted beautifully creating a very coherent string of action sequences that are thoroughly satisfying. Hyams puts Van Damme’s talent nicely on display. Jean-Claude has many awesome moments flexing his agility and ability. The shot of JCVD jumping and doing the splits on the countertop to avoid the stun gun was a memorable moment from the trailer, and remains as such within the film. His martial arts skills make for a unique and hard hitting style that really gives the film a lot of kick. The choreography is plotted out greatly to make the scenes develop logically and organically. The knife fight alone is a nice change of pace, adding to the creativity of the action.
Now, if it wasn’t for all this good talent elevating the quality of this film, it would not be a winner. Again, there are so many confusing issues that arise from the underdeveloped time travel concepts and plot turns in this, that you cannot hold the screenplay as a gold standard of the genre. The general story works very well supported by the acting talents involved, but analyzed at all and its mechanics fall apart. It’s too complicated to dissect here, but simply said, the space-time continuum should’ve imploded by the end of this movie. Paradoxes are abound with people being killed, partially erased from the timeline, resetting timelines, and people retaining knowledge of multiple timelines despite the continuity changing constantly with new incursions into the past. There’s never any constant in what makes for a good time travel story as there’s always some inherent technical complications. Even those that have a well stated theory of time travel can often fall apart, often with their sequels taking too many liberties with the plot. There’s no Doc Brown or Sam Beckett type characters present to really speak to the screenwriter’s theories of time travel. So, the film generally avoids getting too deep into it, and thus, it’s best to avoid rationalizing the logic of it all. In any case, for a little more insight into this matter you can visit an old favorite website of mine which takes a few moments to breakdown the basic flaws: Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies.
The production design is very good with some large sets that offer up some additional scope. The entire TEC facility has a slight futuristic quality, but retains a utilitarian mentality which grounds it. The control room, offices, and launch bay retain a purely functional design idea that would be akin to a secret government facility. It also allows Peter Hyams to create the aforementioned shadowy, noir inspired lighting schemes. The only area where the “futuristic” time of 2004 crashes and burns is the design of these butt ugly automobiles. I’ve never seen a concept car that took the armored, blocky design approach, and indeed, I’m glad that these filmmakers did not accurately foretell the future in this aspect. Aside from that, the art direction is very good, and maybe a little reflective of 1990s visual aesthetics (something that I have no problems with).
The good fortune of this film is that the filmmakers and cast worked hard to make it entertaining and enjoyable. The screenwriter abandoned any serious logic in the temporal mechanics so that the plot could work how he wanted it to. That’s never a good thing, but there’s enough quality put on screen to mostly cloud that shortcoming. Van Damme is great handling all the demands of the role smoothly from dramatic to humorous to emotional to the physical. The supporting cast is just as strong keeping the film consistently entertaining. The characters are well written, and even better realized with solid casting choices. Peter Hyams deserves a lot of credit for creating a film that features high production values with appealing performances and action sequences built on a script that didn’t make much sense, but was satisfying nonetheless.