Now before you roll your eyes and complain that I’ve given way too high a rating to a film that’s not only a blatant Die Hard rip off, but a blatant Die Hard rip off that stars Jean Claude Van Damme, you really should take a second a hear me out, because when given half a chance, Sudden Death turns out to be something of a violent little jewel nestled between Street Fighter and… er, his appearance in Friends on JCVD’s filmography.
Made during that period in the Muscles From Brussels’ career where he not only was appearing in vehicles with decent budgets, but was also working with some known directors, the movie takes all the familiar tropes from John McClane’s rowdy, Christmas Eve night, stuffs it into a hockey stadium and then proceeds to turn everything on its head to a genuinely surprising degree, resulting in a movie that’s as bizarrely affecting as it is ultimately derivative.
Buckle up bitches, it’s time for the play off.
Divorced, ex-fireman Darren McCord now makes a living as a fire marshal at the Pittsburgh Civic Centre after losing his nerve after a young child died in his arms, but while this has made him lose a bit of respect from his young son, Tyler, his daughter Emily still sees him as a towering hero. He drops by his ex-wife’s house for an unplanned visitation in order to take his kids to a match of the Stanley Cup Finals where the Pittsburgh Penguins are due to butt heads on the ice with the Chigco Blackhawks.
However, McCord’s timing couldn’t be worse as a gang of domestic terrorists lead by uber-confident, ex CIA operative Joshua Foss are planning to storm the private box where the Vice President is residing to hold him hostage until he can get access to dodgy funds the Pentagon has in shadow accounts. Wiring up the entire stadium to blow and having his men violently plant themselves undercover as staff all around the arena, it looks like Foss’ plan is risky, but ultimately fool proof – unfortunately, he didn’t think to make it Van Damme proof when little Emily inadvertently stumbles on the insidious plot and is taken hostage.
Unable to get into the private box, McCord gradually pieces together what the terrorists are up to by beating it out of various henchmen and sets out to thwart the plan of the bad guys by diffusing all the bombs he can find while simultaneously fracturing the skull of every wrongdoer who crosses his path. However, Foss’ plan is hinged on the countdown running parallel with the stages of the game, so McCord only has the time it takes for the game to end to get his daughter back, make sure his son is safe and belt as many trained killers he can with the heaviest weapons he can get his hands on.
I won’t lie, I have a major soft spot for this movie and the secret to Sudden Death’s success is that it’s precisely the kind of film you think it is while simultaneously somehow not turning out how you’d expect. For a start, Van Damme’s character is way more flawed than the usual face kicking hero he’s known for portraying and once we get past the requisite excuse for his accent (French Canadian, this time) we find that he’s vunerable, traumatized from his previous job and – most weirdly of all – not a martial arts expert. Oh, he can still kick alright, but here he’s a more rudimentary brawler than a slick, limber athlete, which means the fights are dirtier, nastier and way more desperate than the usual scraps JCVD usually wins by jumping up in the air and twirling his legs like helicopter blades. Elsewhere, the presence of a couple of kids would usually be the cause of some alarm as you’d expect them to provide some cheap raising of the stakes as the movie rumbles on and while his ruthlessly cute daughter is captured, she has the steely resolve of a Russian prison guard while the son breaks all conventions by actually doing as he’s told, even staying put in his seat when bad guys pretend to be a family friend or shit starts exploding.
As well as this surprisingly endearing turn of events (Kids in action movies not being annoying? The Hell?), another refreshing turn up for the books is its ruthless treatment of its supporting characters who are built up as rather three dimentional people and so when they are taken as hostages, you’re expecting it will somehow pay off later when they rise up and aid McCord against the terrorists – but nope. The movie is merely racking up an extra cold-blooded body count as the script instead opts to slaughter them all like pigs regardless of age, creed or social standing. While you would think this would end up being rather off-putting (could you imagine Die Hard if Hans Gruber shot the pregnant secretary instead of Ellis?), instead this gleefully lack of respect for human life weirdly makes the stakes seem much higher, the movie way more unpredictable and the terrorists legitimately formidable. As a result, Van Damne’s Darren McCord becomes quite the underdog and endearingly shit at playing the hero; not an thing easy to do when your star is famous for doing the splits and roundhouse kicking bad guys into oblivion. As the time ticks away, he readily admits he doesn’t give two fucks about the vice president and only cares about saving his daughter, the majority of the hostages are killed and he only manages to find most, but not all of the bombs – which, alongside the fact that Van Damme genuinely looks like he’s having a panic attack throughout – gives this openly preposterous action flick a strange, tangible sense of far fetched realism.
Helping immensely is the late great Powers Booth who is on magnificently odious form as the overly chatty arch villain, Joshua Foss who chews on such dastardly dialogue as “Go ahead, heroes get the best funerals!” like a texan chewing on tobacco and remains a legitimate threat even when clad in his disturbingly odd getaway disguise that involves what looks like a Justin Bieber wig and a Ned Flanders moustache that only succeeds in making him look vaguely like a paedophile.
Director Peter Hyams (doing the Van Damme double after Timecop) films everything with a Tony Scott-style intensity and the action and hockey sequences are intertwined for maximum nail gnawing efficiency. Plus he’s obviously having tremendous fun making his fight sequences as ridiculous/vicious as possible which is personified in a magnificent scene where Van Damne engages in a brutal fight to the death against a woman dressed in a giant Penguin suit. Like that? Well then you’re in luck because Sudden Death gets even stranger as by all respects, the scene where McCord dresses up as a goalie, finds his way onto the ice, saves an impossible shot to keep the game tied and then signing “I love you” to his son sitting in the cheap seats should have had me throwing my popcorn at the screen and angrily storming out through the nearest fire exit in disgust – but it actually succeeded in choking me up the first time I ever saw it. Even the climax – which contains surely one of the most awkward looking helicopter crashes ever committed to film – can’t stop the movie’s ridiculous momentum and as a result, the film remains somewhat of a hidden classic in the shakey subgenre of Die Hard clones.
Unapologetically brutal, edge-of-the-seat unpredictable and ludicrously fun, Sudden Death manages to subvert expectations and expertly blends in the sports aspect while striving to be a little bit smarter than your average bout of terrorist smashing, all the while still being fantastically dumb as puck.