Sudden Death was the beginning of the end for Van Damme.
Until this point he had been riding high. His films were steadily making more money. His star had never been brighter as an international action hero. But none of that would last. It crested with Timecop (still his highest grossing solo film) and began to dissolve with the lackluster (but still profitable) success of Street Fighter, both released in 1994. And by the time Sudden Death nreleased a year later in 1995, it was one of the last of what you could consider his “traditional” big blockbuster films, at least for a while. It was his last theatrically released movie that wasn’t an utter embarrassment at the box office. (Although, Showgirls placed one notch above it, so the use of “utter embarrassment” here is entirely subjective.) And, on a less cinematic note, it was around this time that Van Damme was reportedly spending about $10,000 a week to support his raging cocaine habit.
But whatever personal turmoil would cause Van Damme to spiral further out of control both on screen and off, it doesn’t quite show here. Van Damme reunites with his Timecop director, Peter Hyams, to deliver what is actually one of his least flashy films. An odd thing to consider given that it’s essentially a Die Hard rip off on the conceptual level. But while there are plenty of shootouts and fist fights, most of them are small, one-on-one affairs and never last more than a couple minutes. This is also the rare film of his that doesn’t involve his character employing martial arts moves of almost any kind, certainly one of the reasons the film feels more subdued.
It makes sense, though, given Van Damme’s character. He plays Darren McCord, a fire marshal who resigned from active duty as a firefighter when he locked up on the job and failed to save a child from a blaze. Now divorced and rarely able to see his kids, Darren is hoping to get some quality time with them as he manages to snag a few tickets to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, pitting the hometown Pittsburgh Penguins against the Chicago Blackhawks. This is convenient because it turns out that a lowly fire marshal is the only one who can save the day when terrorists (lead by the inimitable Powers Boothe) infiltrate the game and manage to hold hostage the Vice President of the United States (played by Arlo Givens himself, Raymond J. Barry). Foss (Boothe) and his stereotypical cadre of Ostentatious 90s Goons (seriously, these guys should learn not to have huge mullets or wear gaudy ear jewelry or keep their sunglasses on inside) have placed C4 at strategic points around the arena and threaten to blow the place to kingdom come if billions of dollars are not transferred into multiple accounts.
As a whole, Sudden Death is perfectly entertaining. The stakes manage to be both big enough to warrant its place as a blockbuster action film, but also personal enough for Van Damme’s McCord to have some emotional investment. It moves along at a swift clip but never feels so bogged down in fight scenes that you get numbed to the action. Although it’s actually somewhat quaint to watch now. Saving an entire stadium full of people from a couple dozen greedy terrorists at one point felt like a monumental task, but now that superheroes routinely save the entire planet from hordes of trash-mob minions, something like Sudden Death feels like small potatoes. Still, it’s a fun flick that manages to justify its existence amid the avalanche of Die Hard imitators that had sprung up (and were still yet to come). It’s no Under Siege, probably the best Die Hard on a … example out there from the era, but it stands right alongside stuff like Executive Decision.
What really makes this stand out, especially among the majority of Van Damme’s body of work, is how ordinary he is. Darren McCord is just a guy. He’s not a trained fighter or a genetically enhanced super soldier or even a drifter who happens to know split-fu. He’s a guy who suffered trauma and is now embarrassed to tell his kids what he actually does for a living. Fighting for his family is a recurring motif in Van Damme’s films, but his characters have never felt this desperate before. It makes Sudden Death one of the few Die Hard ripoffs to imitate its progenitor’s heart as much as it wants to imitate its style and structure. Just as John McClane wants to be home for Christmas with Holly and the kids, McCord (okay, so it imitates the protagonist’s name too) just wants his kids back safe and sound.
Sudden Death wasn’t just a box-office turning point either, though. This was one of the last times that Van Damme played someone as flat-out normal as Darren McCord. Sure, he’d return to playing family men and there are other films that don’t emphasize his martial arts prowess, but this is truly one of the last of his films that feels tailor-made for the general multiplex crowd. So much of what follows in his career is either weird (Knock Off) or dark in tone (Wake of Death, In Hell) or has him playing well against type (The Expendables 2, Pound of Flesh).
Best line: “Would you like it if I filled your mouth with spiders?” — Foss to McCord’s little girl
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Street Fighter, Timecop, Hard Target, Nowhere to Run, Universal Soldier, Double Impact,
Death Warrant, Lionheart, Kickboxer, Cyborg, Bloodsport.