Action Heroes – Van Damme: Sudden Death

Everyone has done it.  You are not a proper action hero unless you have done a “Die Hard in a…” film. Perhaps Schwarzenegger is the exception here – but then he is literally the ruling king of the action film box office. But we have had many Die Hard on a bus (Speed), Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57); Die hard on a boat (Under Siege) Die Hard on a train (Under Siege 2) and so on. The Van Dammage one is set in a hockey arena.

Yup a hockey arena. Van Damme re-teamed with his Timecop helmer, Peter Hyams (2010, Outland) for this action film. Van Damme plays a fireman (with a troubled past) who is now working as part of fire and safety at said arena. He takes his kids there to watch a game while he works on the same night that the vice president (a great Raymond J. Barry) is attending in the VIP box.

Enter Powers Boothe and his team of terrorists. They place bombs around the building and take the VIP box hostage and hold the VP to ransom. At regular intervals they off guests unless they get the money they want.  And off guests they do – they are fairly merciless about it too. They are not afraid to shoot old ladies!

Van Damme gets wind of what is going on and ends up on a mission defusing bombs and taking on random bad guys that get in his way.  It isn’t one of Van Damme’s best fighting films – so don’t expect many fancy moves. But there are plenty of scenario set fights (kitchens, changing rooms) that are just as powerful as anything from his back catalogue.

It’s surprising just how many of these little set pieces that are good. There is a great balance of thrills and comedy mixed in. I mean come on; his first major fight is with a woman dressed as a giant penguin mascot.  Watching Van Damme knock ten bells out of a giant stuffed toy is nothing short of hilarious.

There is also a great scene where he has to dress as a goalie in order to avoid detection, and then bizarrely ends up playing in the game! (saving a critical shot!) It’s all laughs and cheers.

The key decision in this film that makes it work is the fact that van Damme has very little dialogue. Well he is too busy fighting and finding bombs for it ever to give him much of a chance to talk. And the film never really lets up. Boothe is a bit of a ham, but he does have some wonderfully colourful dialogue whether he is insulting his captive guests; threatening little girls or having chats with our hero over the radio.

Hyams keeps the tension active with a clock countdown to the game starting and the action really hitting its groove.  The ending is perhaps a step over the top too far.  The helicopter bit is a letdown in that it does go too far with the fun. But then again it’s Die Hard in a hockey rink – you really should expect it to all end with a bang. And despite it being a Die Hard action film it brings much originality to it. The whole idea probably only came about because the owners of the Penguins team had a large hand in the creative process of this film (his wife wrote the story, he produced).

This really does close the case on whether Van Damme is a valid action hero. All the best action heroes have done the Prison film (Van Damme did Death Warrant, Stallone did Lock Up, Seagal did one I don’t seem to remember the name of… Half Past Dead?); a Comic Book Movie (Van Damme did Timecop, Schwarzenegger did Batman & Robin, Stallone did Judge Dredd, Lundgren did The Punisher. Seagal doesn’t seem to see much of the comic side of anything judging by his constipated expression); and also the Die Hard scenario. Beyond this, comparison’s get a bit weak on the ground. They all tend to play characters called John, Jack or Joe!  (John Rambo, John Matrix, John McClane – actually that works!).

Van Damme hasn’t done a film with Hyams as director since and it’s a shame because Sudden Death and Timecop are easily his best 90s efforts.  He has however worked with Hyams’ son on the more recent Universal Solider films.

Steven Hurst

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