Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, May 19, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Sudden Death (1995)

In the last two months of 1994, Jean-Claude Van Damme had back-to-back sizable hits. “Timecop” became the highest grossing film of his career. Critics had plenty of negative things to say about “Street Fighter” but it too made money, especially overseas. Van Damme had finally made it to the A-list. Yet the Belgian action star’s reign atop the box office would be short-lived. “Sudden Death,” his 1995 action opus, would disappoint domestically despite a strong international showing. A further series of flops and a slew of personal problems – including a notorious 10,000 dollar a week cocaine addiction – would see Van Damme’s star burn out quickly. In other words, “Sudden Death” is the last good Jean-Claude Van Damme movie we would get for a while.

Darren McCord is a disgraced fire fighter, blaming himself for being unable to rescue a little girl inside a collapsing building. A year later, his marriage has dissolved despite the deep love he has for his two kids, Emily and Tyler. Now Darren is working as the fire marshal at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. It’s the night of the big game, the Stanley Cup Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks. The game is such a big deal that the Vice President is in attendance. A group of thieves are aware of this too. They take the Vice President hostage during the game. At the end of every round, they will murder someone unless their price is paid. If their demands aren’t met by the end of the game, they will blow up the entire arena. When Darren’s daughter is taken hostage, he becomes involved, taking down the bad guys while a hockey game rages overhead.

Seven years after John McClane first leaped off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza, people were still making “Die Hard” rip-offs. This is how it was in the nineties, when half of the action tent poles were some variation on the “Die Hard” formula. “Sudden Death” can accurately be described as “Die Hard in a Hockey Arena.” The similarities are clear. A team of high-tech thieves, led by an unhinged by charismatic madman, take a location hostage, rigging the place with explosives and demanding money. A lone man inside the building, the bad guys unaware of his presence at first, has to save the day. The weirdest part about “Sudden Death” is that it was co-produced by Howard Baldwin, chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Building a brutally violent action film around your sports team seems like an odd form of cross-brand promotion. Then again, “Sudden Death” portrays the hockey game as so compelling, the audience doesn’t notice the multiple explosions and gun fights happening in and around the arena.

In “Timecop,” Van Damme played a parent for the first time. He returns to this territory in “Sudden Death,” playing a sensitive variation on his action persona. McCord has to directly rescue his two kids. We don’t see him reconcile with his ex-wife but the implication seems to be that, by saving his children, Darren earns her approval again. Earlier in the movie, Emily teaches McCord the sign language for “I love you.” Later, after making a game-changing save on the ice, Darren does this signal to his boy. In the last act, he has to save his little girl from the big bad guy. His love for his kids is what directly motivates Van Damme. While there’s no manly tears, “Sudden Death” still features the hero hugging and kissing his children. Keeping with the “Die Hard” formula, Van Damme’s hero is more vulnerable then his previous parts. He still high kicks his way out of trouble but the character has to think on his feet, frequently stumbling in and out of trouble.

“Sudden Death” is undeniably a Van Damme movie, even if it’s fairly low on the star’s trademarks. (I’m sad to report a lack of screaming and upper nudity.) Yet the villain nearly runs away with the game. Powers Boothe can always be counted on to deliver an intense performance. In “Sudden Death,” Powers plays Joshua Foss. Boothe is theatrical in his derangement. He wears a nice suit, an expensive watch, and sips on a fancy wine. Boothe happily reads off a long list of demands, delivering each line with evil relish. It says a lot that threatening to fill a little girl’s mouth full of spiders is only the second or third most ridiculous act of comic book supervillainy he performs. There are other solid supporting parts in “Sudden Death,” such as Dorian Harewood as the appropriately sinister dirty Secret Service agent or Michael Gaston as Foss’ relaxed computer hacker. Yet the Powers That Be overshadows all of them.

The action sequences in “Sudden Death” range from tensely effective to hilariously goofy. Sometimes simultaneously! When Darren’s scaling the arena’s dome, trying not to fall, that’s intense. When a bad guy goes sliding down the structure in a protracted manner, that’s funny. The violence in “Sudden Death” can be brutal. When people are machine gunned, it’s extra bloody. In one scene, Van Damme punches a hole in a hand with some sort of polishing device. He tortures a villain with steam from an open stove. Even when being vicious, “Sudden Death” is kind of funny. Such as when he sets a guy on fire with a child’s squirt gun. The action highlight in the film is not the climatic sight of a helicopter crashing against the ice, though that is pretty cool. Instead, it’s the first fight in the movie. One of the villain’s assassins disguises herself as Iceburgh, the Penguins’ mascot. Van Damme and the mascot ramble in the kitchen. Hands are shoved in hot oil, faces hover above open grills, and paprika is tossed into eyes. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Van Damme chopping a mascot’s head off in a vent fan makes the sequence as funny as it is exciting.

Peter Hyams directed “Sudden Death,” re-teaming with JCVD after “Timecop.” The second collaboration is slightly better then their first, as it balances the action and the sentimentality more smoothly. Mostly, “Sudden Death” can be recommended for its mascot assisted homicide and Powers Boothe’s outrageous performance. If one was to rank the various “Die Hard” rip-offs, this would rank far below “Speed” and “Air Force One” but far above the “Under Siege” series. As far as nineties era Van Damme flicks go, it’s pretty good. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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