By 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme was at the height of his success in Hollywood.
240By 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme was at the height of his success in Hollywood. He'd accomplished at least one successful film a year for six years in a row, and had just completed the biggest hitting - and arguably best - three films of his career: Universal Soldier, opposite Dolph Lundgren; John Woo's US debut, Hard Target; and 1994's Timecop, which would prove to be his most successful film. Unfortunately, he would make one further film that fateful year, the horrendous video game adaptation, Street Fighter, and it would mark the start of his downfall; the first film he'd done which truly alienated even his hardcore action fans. Around the same to time, a messy divorce, painful custody battles and a burgeoning cocaine habit would see the quality of his work steadily drop, and his popularity fade along with it.
Of course, now, he's turned his life around, certainly, and has managed to return to far more impressive - if low budget - works, as well as remarry (the woman he divorced), introduce his children into the film world, and shake his drug habit. Indeed, anybody who has seen the excellent French drama JCVD will know a little bit about what the man has been through, as well as just what he is truly capable of.
Back in 1995, however, he was still making good big movies, even though things were starting to go downhill, and, although Woo didn't want to reunite with him after Hard Target, director Peter Hyams, who had shot Timecop for him, was more than happy to do another Van Damme flick (and, would later go on to do the cinematography for two of his son's, John Hyams', collaborations with Van Damme, the surprisingly dark and innovative Universal Soldier sequels, Regeneration and Day of Reckoning).
Sudden Death saw him play Darren McCord, an ex-firefighter working fire safety at an ice hockey arena. When terrorists take over the Vice President's executive box and hold him and his entourage hostage, they also, inadvertently, kidnap McCord's young daughter. Big mistake. With the entire stadium wired with C-4, and the secret service seemingly powerless to help, it falls to McCord to disarm the bombs, kill the bad guys, save the VP and rescue his daughter - all before the end of the third round.
Although originally actually written as a spoof on all the Die-Hard-On-A... movies of the era - the screenwriter was the same guy who wrote many of the Police Academy sequels - Sudden Death was eventually rejigged to make for a straight actioner, for Van Damme and Hyams (although a scripted fight with a Penguin mascot remained intact). To be honest, all of the major action stars of that period had already dipped into suitable Die-Hard-On-A... material by then (Passenger 57 for Snipes, Under Siege for Seagal and even Speed for Keanu Reeves) so it was about time Van Damme got on the bandwagon.
Ironically, considering the fact that it had been spawned from a potential spoof script, Sudden Death's spin on the Die Hard premise - most notably the taking of the VP hostage - as well as its unusual setting, made it actually quite enjoyable, at least in premise. And filmmaker Peter Hyams always worked his best magic with unusual settings - from the sci-fi landscape of 2010 to the faux-fi landscape of Capricorn One; from the Jupiter's moon setting for the Sean Connery space-High-Noon, Outland, to the train-based Narrow Margin. Famous for also being cinematographer on the films he directed, even the two Universal Soldier sequels - where he only took on DOP duties - saw him make the most of the unusual settings, from the disused nuclear plant in Regeneration to the underground training facility in Day of Reckoning. He'd previously done Van Damme's highly successful Timecop, but on a bigger budget. Still, here he did his best with what he was afforded, and got pretty lucky too along the way.
It was luck, after all, that secured the filmmakers this unusual ice hockey arena setting - complete with a dozen pro players - as there was an NHL lockout strike which had resulted in a period where no games were being played and all the pros were sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Hyams certainly makes the most of it, particularly during the finale, even managing to crowbar-in a brief bit of hockey play for our hero along the way! Sure, the budget is often unwittingly revealed thanks to shoddy back-screen effects and a particularly ludicrous moment where a helicopter somehow tips straight up vertically and drops down tail rotor first (somebody, somewhere, should have noted the physics that makes this utterly ridiculous), but Hyams still works wonders with both the claustrophobic tunnels and the impressive scale of the arena's exterior.
So, what of our hero? Well Van Damme was always, in his own way, trying to diversify his film parts; play slightly different characters, with more interesting back-stories, whilst, of course, still making room for his trademark spinning- / high- / split- kicks and all the other general ass-kickery that his fans knew and loved him for. The plan didn't always work - his more recent Six Bullets integrated the tragic past trauma element far better, and gleaned from him a stronger performance - but his character's fractured marriage and custody background appeared to reflect his own woes, lending the story some degree of authenticity. And, of course, he takes every opportunity to punch and kick his opponents into oblivion (here shown in all their uncut glory), although there are a few nice MacGuyver-esque improvisational touches thrown into the mix.
Amidst those opponents we got Powers Boothe holding the villains together pretty-much single-handedly. Boothe's held his own in countless b-movie action flicks, from the underrated Walter Hill ensemble actioner, Extreme Prejudice, to Brandon Lee's only other watchable movie beyond The Crow, Rapid Fire; from his down and dirty sheriff in Oliver Stone's U-Turn to his twisted Senator in Sin City. Hell, he even made a welcome entry into the hit TV show, 24. Here he tries his best to chew scenery and revel in the psychotic greed of his secret-service-agent-gone-bad character, and, whilst not up there anywhere near the most memorable villains, he does appear to have a whole lot of fun trying to get his name on the board.
Of course, despite the best efforts of Hyams, Van Damme and Boothe, the unusual location and the cleverly tweaked Die-Hard-On-A... formula used for the premise, Sudden Death is still b-movie action all the way. As a fan of action icons of the 80s and 90s - in particular, Van Damme, of course - it's above-average fare, oftentimes thrilling and innovative, whilst never less than entertaining, but not up to the scratch of, say, the first few Die Hard flicks, or even Van Damme's own Hard Target. Hell, even the previous year's Van Damme / Hyams collaboration, Timecop, was a better, more polished and original work than this. But for those who still get a kick out of second generation Die Hard cousins - like Under Siege 2 - Sudden Death will be right up your street and should easily be awarded at least a point more than this stricter score reflects. Solid 90s action.
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