Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Universal Van Damme: Sudden Death (1995)

After a little girl dies in his arms, super fireman Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) has a bit of a breakdown. Now, some undisclosed time later, he’s beginning to work again as a fire marshal in the stadium of the Pittsburgh Penguins, an ice hockey team, or so the film tells me. He manages to get a couple of cards for his little son and daughter for the Stanley Cup finale (whatever that may be).

Unfortunately, the Vice President (Raymond J. Barry) is also visiting that day, and a gang of international evil doers lead by the fussy and rather cruel Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe) has taken it upon themselves to take the VP hostage as the first step in a rather violent and explosion-rich scheme for monetary gain. Because the Secret Service under one Agent Hallmark (Dorian Harewood) is really rather horrible at its job, the VP is soon taken, and the stadium all rigged to blow.

The only thing standing between ice hockey and catastrophe is McCord, who becomes particularly involved once the bad guys kidnap his daughter. Turns out, US firemen not only know a lot about the disarming of bombs but are also really capable killers.

In my recent write-up of director Peter Hyams’s Outland, I mentioned something along the line of Hyams being able to take an exceedingly silly script and make an exceedingly silly as well as exciting film out of it. Sudden Death is to my eyes irrefutable proof of that assertion. This is, after all, a film whose first major action scene consists of JCVD having a fight with an ice hockey mascot using all manner of commercial kitchen utensils in ways that really demonstrate how dangerous of a working place that is, and that gets more bizarre from there on out, finally ending on a physics and logic defying duel between JCVD and a helicopter.

Which, obviously, is a very good thing for the sort of film this is, because a Die Hard variation taking place in an ice hockey stadium with sensible or (ugh) realistic action would probably be boring as well as point out how little sense any of its plot points make. Fortunately, Hyams has things well in hand, with an imaginative array of absurdist action that actually does remind me of the all-out approach of the best of Hong Kong action cinema, not in its directorial approach (Hyams’s way to film action is clear, straight, and exciting but eschews any kind of stylization) but in its shameless willingness to trade in believability for excitement, as well as in its imagination.

Other highlights are a son who doesn’t move even when the stadium breaks down around him (that’s JCVD parenting, folks), a daughter stamping everyone becoming a plot point, Powers Boothe having a lot of fun being a slimy sadist prick whose plans probably would work out better if he’d be less violent, and the fact that there’s pretty much never a dull moment – and only few moments that make much sense – once the film really hits its stride.

Jean-Claude for his part is at the point in his career where his basic acting skills are perfectly fit for the job at hand; and because his character actually does things like bleed and sweat and breathe heavily he’s on the right side of the US action hero equation, where a degree of humanity reigns. Something you particularly learn to appreciate if you’ve seen a bunch of Chuck Norris films in the last few weeks, where anything even vaguely human in its hero seems to be treated as a weakness, even though it’s actually these things that make a viewer root for a hero. Well, that or his parenting skills, obviously.

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