Robin’s Underrated Gems: Sudden Death (1995)

This week marks the beginning of the 2012 National Hockey League Stanley Cup playoffs and there s really no hockey movie that puts me in the mood for them better than this one. In the early 1990s, it seemed like literally every other movie being released into cinemas was a Die Hard clone. The formula of a lone hero single-handedly fighting off terrorists and rescuing hostages in a single location proved so popular that you’d often see action movies being billed as “Die Hard on a plane” or “Die Hard on a boat” or “Die Hard on a train”. This formula went through every variation imaginable, and they even released a straight-to-video film called No Contest, which was “Die Hard at a beauty contest” and featured Shannon Whirry in the John McClane role and Andrew Dice Clay and Rowdy Roddy Piper as the terrorists! Throughout this period, I was actually hoping that someone would eventually do “Die Hard at a sporting event” and in 1995, my prayers were answered when Sudden Death was released, featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme as a lone hero fighting terrorists who’ve taken over Game#7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Now, I’m going to state right off the bat that this is definitely one of the silliest movies ever featured in a “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column. It’s often hard to gauge whether or not Sudden Death is an intentional or unintentional comedy, and I’m sure some people will think I’m completely wasting my time by writing about this film. It may be the goofiest Die Hard clone ever made, but it’s definitely one of the most entertaining. Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions were when they made this, Sudden Death is still pretty damn funny and exciting and never commits the cardinal sin of being boring. Since I am a lifelong NHL fan and still consider Die Hard to be my favourite American action film of all time, I pretty much decided right from the outset that using a Stanley Cup playoff game as the backdrop for the Die Hard formula was a can’t-miss scenario.

The film opens inside a burning house where a Pittsburgh fireman named Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) fails to save a little girl from being a killed. This leads to… well, it doesn’t lead to anything, really, and serves as a half-assed way for the hero to carry around a “personal demon”. Anyway, this incident apparently causes to Darren have a complete breakdown and two years later, he is divorced from his family and works as a fire marshal at the Civic Arena, where Game#7 of the Stanley Cup Finals is set to take place between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. Darren is able to acquire tickets to take his son, Tyler (Ross Malinger), and daughter, Emily (Whittni Wright), to the game, but they all find their lives in danger when (you guessed it) terrorists decide to take over the arena. A former government employee named Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe) and his goons manage to hijack the owner’s box, where the Vice President of the United States (Raymond J. Barry) just happens to be watching the game. Foss has planted several bombs throughout the arena and will blow the whole place sky high if the government doesn’t transfer over a billion dollars to various bank accounts by the end of the game. Through very contrived circumstances, Emily winds up being held hostage in the owner’s box as well, and once Darren finds out about this, he springs into action by taking out the terrorists and disarming the bombs, one-by-one. For a civil servant with no military or law enforcement training, he proves himself to be remarkably adept at this. Oh, and did I mention that at one point, Darren hides from the bad guys by disguising himself as the Penguins goalie and actually winds up PLAYING IN THE GAME where he makes a spectacular save?!

The premise for Sudden Death was dreamed up by Karen Baldwin, the wife of Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin. In exchange for green-lighting his wife s idea, Mr. Baldwin allowed the studio to film in his arena, and actors even play Howard and Karen Baldwin while they are held hostage in the owner’s box! Since the movie was filmed during the 1994-95 NHL lockout, the real players from the Penguins and Blackhawks didn’t have anything better to do at the time, so they play themselves during the game sequences. Hall-of-Fame Penguins play-by-play announcer Mike Lange even appears to call the action during the film and deliver his colourful “Lange-isms” such as “Scratch my back with a hacksaw!”. As an NHL fan, I think this all adds a lot of flavour to the film and prevents it being just another Die Hard knockoff. I will be the first to admit that nothing about this plot holds together at all, and even the basic premise doesn’t make any sense. Why would you plan to take over Game#7 of the Stanley Cup Finals when there’s never any guarantee a Game#7 will actually happen?! I visualized these terrorists anxiously watching Game#6 and rooting for the Blackhawks to win and extend the series, since, otherwise, their entire plan would go to shit! Like I said before, I have no idea if this movie was intended to be a comedy or not. Screenwriter Randy Feldman (who wrote the Sylvester Stallone/Kurt Russell action comedy, Tango & Cash) has always claimed that he was hired to write the first draft of the script as a deliberate Die Hard parody, but that it was later reworked into a more conventional action film. However, since the only credited screenwriter on the film is Gene Quintano, whose previous credits include writing Police Academy 3 & 4 and directing National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon, I have my doubts that Sudden Death was ever supposed to be taken seriously. Whatever their intentions, this film features some moments of truly inspired lunacy, and the standout sequence is definitely the epic kitchen fight between Darren and a female terrorist who’s dressed up as Icey, the Pittsburgh Penguins mascot! I am convinced that Seth MacFarlane saw this scene and used it as the inspiration for his running gag on Family Guy where Peter Griffin fights the Giant Chicken!

Awhile back, The Back Row coined a term called “passing the cactus”, an analogy for being able to get past major flaws in a film and enjoying it anyway. Sudden Death is the perfect example of a “passing the cactus” film for me as I’ve always been content to just be entertained and sucked along for the ride while overlooking its major plot holes. Sudden Death was directed by Peter Hyams, whom I’ve previously discussed in my “Underrated Gems” columns for Capricorn One, 2010 and Running Scared. Hyams may not be a great artist, but he is an efficient director who knows how to deliver crowd-pleasing popcorn entertainment. As ridiculous and implausible as the action sequences in Sudden Death may be, they are all staged very well and are genuinely exciting. And even if you don’t care much about the action or the plot, the hockey game depicted in this movie is pretty damn exciting as well. I don’t care what anyone else says, but Luc Robitaille saving the day by scoring the tying goal at the very last second to send the game into sudden death overtime makes for some pretty awesome drama. This film is just not afraid to pile on the absurdities, such as the aforementioned sequence where Darren disguises himself as a goalie, and the only reason I’m not calling this an “everything but the kitchen sink” movie is because I think Darren and Icey do use the kitchen sink at some point during their fight scene. Powers Boothe makes a pretty entertaining villain with his deadpan delivery of some ultra-cheesy one-liners (“What do I want? World peace, an end to bigotry, and no more mini-malls”), and Jean-Claude Van Damme is… well, Jean-Claude Van Damme. He delivers the goods during the action scenes and his hilariously stilted delivery of his dialogue just seemed to meth with this film more than any of his others. Sudden Death was released during the Christmas season in 1995, which is not exactly an ideal time for brainless action movies, and didn’t do well at the box office, so this pretty much marked the end of the “Die Hard clones” era. Looking back, you’d almost equate Sudden Death to something like Snakes on a Plane, except you’re not quite sure if the movie was intentionally ironic and self-aware. It remains one of my favourite escapist action films to watch and enjoy with my brain turned off, and I feel that any movie that decides to cross Die Hard with the Stanley Cup playoffs was made with my best interests at heart.

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