A lookback at the 90s action film Sudden Death, a movie that arrived at a point where action cinema was going through big changes.
Spoilers lie ahead for the film Sudden Death.
Let’s start with this.
In the 1995 film Sudden Death, Iceburgh – the penguin mascot of the Pittsburgh Penguins – stares into the soul of a security guard with her unblinking, foam eyes. She raises her gun and executes the man in front of the horrified eight-year-old that she has taken hostage, shooting the guard in the head and then firing two more bullets into his lifeless body.
Within ten minutes Jean-Claude Van Damme has killed Iceburgh, beating the mascot half to death before she becomes entangled in a giant dishwasher. Iceburgh is pulled into the entrance of the machine, choking to death before emerging from the other end lifeless and steam-cleaned.
Welcome to Sudden Death.
Sudden Death is less a good film than it is both an interesting film and an enjoyable film. It’s interesting because of its unlikely journey to the screen and as a touchpoint for action movie star vehicles. It’s a mean spirited, bloated, ridiculous, tonally uneven and outrageously derivative. But make no mistake, it’s a fun watch. If nothing else, it would be pointless to deny that Jean-Claude Van Damme fighting a giant penguin mascot is a positive experience for all of us who get to watch it.
As it happens, the story of Sudden Death begins exactly where the movie takes place; the Civic Arena, where the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL ice hockey team played their home games back in the 90s.
Now, Film Stories does not hold an editorial stance on the Pittsburgh Penguins, but this particular writer holds an unrelated-to-Sudden-Death and deeply held hatred of the Penguins. So, if you’ll excuse me for just one moment: boo.
Back to the making of the film.
Karen Baldwin, who had acted in a handful of movies and had a story-by credit on low budget thriller Eyewitness To Murder, felt like the Civic Arena would be a great place to set a movie. Her husband, Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, agreed with her. Karen settled on the idea of ‘Die Hard at a hockey arena’ and duly gets a story by credit on the film, with the screenplay ultimately credited to Gene Quintano
From there, the film was boarded by Jean-Claude Van Damme and director Peter Hyams, the pair reunited two years after their ‘greased-up-chest-to-the-future’ action classic Timecop. What the pair lacked in interest in hockey (something we’ll come back to) they made up for with their enthusiasm for Van Damme womping a mascot to death.
The plot centres on Van Damme’s Darren McCord, an amateur hockey player turned firefighter turned haunted fire marshal at the Civic Arena. After surprising his son and daughter with seats at the NHL’s Stanley Cup final, JCVD soon finds himself engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse as he attempts to evade the terrorists who have planted explosives around the arena, and taken over the VIP viewing suite as part of an elaborate robbery.
With the lives of his children, the players, the fans and the Vice President of the United States of America on the line, McCord will have to pull himself out of an emotional funk and violently kill an incredible number of bad guys.
There’s little point denying the elephant in the room: the team behind Sudden Death enthusiastically embraced the influence of Die Hard, by which I mean they flat out looted it. Amusingly, Sudden Death also incorporates a chef in its story and features two big fight sequences in a kitchen, which you might suspect were ‘liberated’ from another hit movie, the Steven Seagal-headlined Under Siege.
Under Siege, for its part, is basically just Die Hard in a chef’s hat and Groucho glasses. You’ve gotta dig that Gary Busey performance, though.
It’s hard to know whether the changing market for action movies around the mid 90s led to the indecisive, uneven tone that afflicts Sudden Death, a film that wants to be light and silly or brutal and shocking depending on which scene you’re watching. Movies built around stars like Van Damme and Steven Seagal were falling out of favour (six months earlier, Seagal had one of his final big screen hits with Under Siege 2: Under Sieger) and it’s easy to imagine the team behind Sudden Death lacking confidence in anticipating what the audience might want. Alternatively, it could be that unimaginative movies like Sudden Death served to kill interest in these kinds of films.
Certainly, by the time Sudden Death hit screens in 1995, Arnie’s biggest hits were behind him and Stallone was struggling to pull action flicks like Assassins over the $30m mark in the US. It was the first Van Damme movie to hit screens following the notorious and noxious 1994 game adaption Street Fighter: The Movie.
Returning around $65m from at the box office from around the world, Sudden Death was a modest hit, although one that made less than previous JCVD movies Street Fighter, Timecop and Hard Target.
Furthermore, compared to John McTiernan’s far better Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995) – a film that somehow owes less to Die Hard than Sudden Death does – and Michael Bay’s stylish debut Bad Boys, Sudden Death feels limp and uninspired. When viewing it now you’re likely to consider it in the context of Van Damme’s career. But when you consider the other films on multiplex marquees in 1995, it’s easier to understand how the movie may have failed to entice audiences into the cinema.
Sudden Death serves as a decent marker for the end of an era of action cinema.
Van Damme would follow Sudden Death with a series of box office disappointments. While his stock as a movie star never quite recovered, arguably the best films of his career were still to come. We’re not here to tell you that Blood Sport and Kickboxer aren’t outrageously brilliant, but JCVD and the Universal Soldier sequels that he made with Sudden Death director Peter Hyams’ son John (with Peter Hyams serving as DoP on Universal Soldier: Regeneration) are the best movies he’s been in.
That’s an opinion I would fight you in a hockey stadium over.
When it came to actually filming this one, though? Well, shooting Die Hard at a hockey game sounds very achievable when have an arena and a hockey team. It is, however, significantly harder without a hockey game.
As bad luck would have it, and I wouldn’t argue for any other kind of luck for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sudden Death‘s shoot took place during the 1994-1995 NHL lockout. A dispute between the Players Association and the NHL led to three months of cancelled games, including a clash between the Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks that would have been used to create footage for the movie.
With no game to draw footage from, local hockey players were recruited, not just to play hockey in the movie but to recreate the movements and playing style of specific NHL players. For those local players it meant long hours on set, often spent waiting for something to do. It was in that downtown that mischief might occur, as it did one night when they realised that the VIP viewing suites were not only disused due to the cancelled hockey games, but that the (locked) fridges in those suites were well stocked with beer.
In a game of hockey player versus locked beer fridge, always bet on the hockey player.
We’re indebted to the wonderful oral history of Sudden Death from the Hockey News for this anecdote, along with many of the other facts featured in this article.
There’s a spirit to hockey, a slightly off-kilter mentality that comes from strapping blades to your feet and charging after a puck at full speed with little regard for anyone’s safety. It’s difficult to describe yet perfectly embodied by the movies Slap Shot and Goon. Some of that spirit would have been the originality, the hook to Sudden Death. Yet, despite signs that it was present on the set raiding those VIP suites, it didn’t find its way onto the screen.
There are only two sequences where the film comes close to tapping into the maniacal spirit of hockey. Obviously, that fight between Van Damme and Iceburgh the mascot, which also perfectly exemplifies the struggle within Sudden Death. It’s brilliantly silly idea, with the lunacy and joy of hockey powering it with each furious punch. Yet it follows scenes of such jarring, mean spirited violence and itself ends on a bizarrely bleak note. I’d actually argue that a film that thrives with an action hero fighting a giant penguin could do with significantly fewer merciless executions.
Alternatively, could Van Damme have fought a tougher mascot, one who could better match the ‘heaped-pile-of-bodies’ approach to supporting characters that Sudden Death employs? Because while the clattering back and forth brawl between Iceburgh and Van Damme is the unquestionable highlight of the film, it’s fair to question the tenacity of one of the lumpiest, least aggressive mascots in the NHL.
Conversely, the Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot Gritty has the sort of unhinged tenacity that could have turned Sudden Death into a film that would have made The Raid look like Paddington 2. Probably. I think this paragraph may have gotten away from me.
The second sequence sees circumstances collude to create a situation where Van Damme is simply forced to put on a full set of goaltending gear and head onto the ice, where he duly makes a remarkable save in the Stanley Cup final (the restraint to not have him score the game winning goal is admirable) before punching out a hockey player. This sequence is a very pure and potent form of joy. I love it. It’s outlandish, it’s silly, it’s funny, Van Damme is great in it. To have the audacity to do this in a post-The Naked Gun world is to be celebrated.
It’s ridiculous enough that it feels close to parody, and there’s a case to be made that this is exactly the film that Sudden Death should have been. A parody would really let you off the hook for all of that Die Hard you’re using. Instead, the film leans more into nastiness and away from the sillier stuff that works best. The above scene is exactly what I want a Van Damme hockey movie to be.
Not only might you be struck by a feeling that Sudden Death doesn’t know what to do with hockey, but it doesn’t seem to know what to do about hockey fans. Specifically, the 15,000 who are unknowingly being held hostage at game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
For a hockey team, the road to the Stanley Cup is a long one. There are 82 league games, followed by the playoffs. The playoffs are a bracketed knockout tournament, with teams playing a series of games until one has notched up four wins (meaning that each series can run for up to seven games). With three rounds before the Stanley Cup final series, a deciding game seven in the Stanley Cup final could be your 110th game of the season, with everything resting on the result of this one game.
The problem with doing Die Hard at the Stanley Cup final game 7, then, is that you have to come up with a way to not disturb anyone. It’s the biggest game in hockey, there are people everywhere. So how does no one clock that there have been about 50 instances of gunfire in the arena and further six explosions in the car park directly outside? These people are so unobservant that they probably wouldn’t even complain in the comments about whatever spelling mistake or grammar error you’ve found in this article (it was my maths in adding up the games, wasn’t it?). But certainly, it’s a difficult conceit to accommodate.
While Sudden Death may not have embraced hockey, then, it certainly embraced the gift shop on its way into the game. This movie is lousy with product placement. If the sight of Pittsburgh Penguins merchandise didn’t inspire a rage in you at the start of the film, it will by the end.
I knew I was in trouble on this front early on when Emily (played by Whittni Wright), the young daughter of Van Damme’s heroic lead, walks into the film wearing a Penguins hat. Booing a child takes an incredible toll on the soul and I don’t appreciate the film putting me in that position. But what are we supposed to do, not boo the Penguins? It’s bad filmmaking.
I do understand at this point that the accumulated exploration of some of the foibles of Sudden Death may conjure a negative picture of the film. Its plentiful flaws are interesting to dig into, while the stuff that works is bread and butter action fare that you suspect Van Damme and Hyams could do in their sleep. These elements of the film, unsurprising though they might be, are still good fun to watch.
There’s a sequence where Van Damme is diffusing a bomb that is edited to create real, grip-the-armrest tension. Van Damme himself waltzes through the film with serious charm and charisma. In one interview to promote Sudden Death, Van Damme explains that audiences have come around to his accent, which I think we’re supposed to accept as French-Canadian here, “because they’re saying your accent is sexy…”.
Who are we to argue?
Van Damme remains a very watchable screen presence, and much of the runtime of Sudden Death is a good time spent in his company. A scene where he attempts to convince villain after villain that he’s holding the most powerful plastic explosive in the world is so funny and showcases Van Damme’s underutilised talent for comedy (see Jean-Claude Van Johnson).
Then there’s the big action movie finale. The big bad villain, who we’ll come to shortly, blows up what appears to be a cupboard full of water. There’s chaos, people everywhere. We need a hero.
Now some might question Van Damme’s judgement in bringing down a helicopter, causing it to crash into the arena just as 15,000 people are leaving it. To be fair, it seems like most of the people are just about out, although how he knew that the helicopter would crash-land inside and not out is anyone’s guess. The only people who seem to be in any real danger are him and, er, his children, who are in the arena.
Look, he brings down the helicopter and ultimately it saves the day. He’s a hero and the action is all sparks and explosions. It’s fun!
The secret weapon Sudden Death has up its sleeve is its baddie.
Hampered though he is by an army of henchmen that look like they come from the Vanilla Ice part of the 90s, the villainous Joshua Foss cuts a frightening figure. That’s because he’s played by the utterly wonderful Powers Boothe, perhaps the slickest screen presence in cinema. He’s smoother than jazz and Kenco coffee, even if he’s done a disservice by the script.
Boothe clearly relishes the role, immediately measuring his performance for the tone and then topping it up with just a little more.
“I’ll tell you how that came about,” he said to Empire back in 2017. “Tommy Lee [Jones] had just done a film with Steven Seagal. When Sudden Death came up, I quite liked the part and all that stuff, but they also offered me a lot of money. I thought, ‘Well, if it’s good enough for Tommy Lee to do this kind of thing, I can do it.’ As it turned out I had a lot of fun playing the guy. In fact, when they finished the film and did focus groups, audiences liked me so much that we went back and reshot the end to make my demise much more spectacular. I was pleased with that.”
“I saw the movie again last year and I’d forgotten about the part where I threaten the girl with spiders. (Laughs) I believe I said, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It’s in the mode of Alan Rickman’s part in Die Hard, an outrageous villain. I wish I had done that part in Die Hard instead of this one, but that’s alright…”
It does seem, in conclusion, that Sudden Death is a few key decisions away from being a better film.
It works best when its silly and fun, when Van Damme can be funny and charming. It’s a film that seems dead set on including some very nasty, mean spirited violence towards its supporting cast members, setting a tone that ill suits the ridiculousness of its concept. It could do with a touch of Shane Black or Steven E. De Souza, both screenwriters who have showcased an incredible ability to balance high stakes action with a lighter tone than Sudden Death achieves.
More jokes and fewer executions in front of children, essentially.
Yet, for its flaws, it’s still the film that sees Jean-Claude Van Damme violently demolish the giant penguin mascot of the despicable Pittsburgh Penguins. I may have mentioned it. And that’s an action sequence that can resist any number of flaws, particularly on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
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