Wednesday, May 8, 2019

"Sudden Death" - Van Damme Fights a Woman in a Penguin Suit...What Else Do You Need to Know?

*I write these articles with SPOILERS. All of this makes much more sense if you’ve seen the movie, especially if you’ve seen it recently.

Another month, another Van Damme movie. This time I’m going with Sudden Death, one of the first movies I can remember mocking. I was in the sixth grade when this came out, and I watched it at a friend’s house, and we just cracked up at the cheesiness of the villains, mainly the guy who holds the chef’s wife hostage. His line, “You’ll what, burn my toast? Ha ha ha ha!” had us rolling. Honestly, I don’t remember much of this movie aside from that, and the fact that Van Damme ends up taking over as the goalie at one point during a Stanley Cup game. Rewatching it, I realized I was a foolish sixth grader, because this movie is actually pretty great.

Much better than I remembered. Also, Powers Boothe steals the show.

Sudden Death tends to (rightfully) get labeled as a Die Hard clone. “It’s Die Hard at a hockey game!” Maybe it’s the self-aware state of action films these days, and I’m feeling nostalgic for the action of the ‘90s, but this movie was surprisingly refreshing in its simplicity. It has everything I want in an action movie: Jean-Claude Van Damme, a seriously sadistic villain, R-rated brutal action, and unironic goofiness.

Let’s start with Van Damme. I think it’s pretty clear by now that I have a strange fascination with the Muscles from Brussels. I just like his movies. I’m not starting a cult or anything, though. I am aware that his line delivery is rough at times, and he’s been miscast, and he’s been under the influence of drugs during a few movies (I’m looking at you, Knock Off). So I can admit when one of his movies doesn’t work for me. This one used to be one of those, but watching it again, I realized that they don’t really use Van Damme much in this movie. He has fewer fight scenes than normal, and there is a lot of focus on the villain throughout. He has no love interest, and he spends a lot of the movie just skulking around looking for bombs. That used to be why I didn’t care that much for this one, but now it’s what I like about it. This is nothing against Van Damme, because he’s still a legitimate action star in this. It’s just that his character isn’t really that interesting, so I was glad we spent more time with the villain. Which brings me to the true star of Sudden Death: Powers Boothe.

Powers Boothe is one of those actors that I tend to forget about, then I see him in something and realize how fucking good he was. Maybe it was my subconscious that caused me to pick this film because I’ve been rewatching Deadwood in anticipation of the movie coming out later this month, and it bums me out every time I see Boothe because he died before they got the movie together. He’s so effortlessly sadistic in that show, and it sucks that we won’t see him again. But he left behind an amazing body of work to be enjoyed for years to come, and Sudden Death is a highlight.

Boothe will mainly be remembered for Deadwood and Tombstone, but he’s definitely one of those “that guy” actors that everyone remembers from one thing or another (one thing I came across while checking his filmography was a TV movie in which he played Jim Jones, and now I definitely have to watch it). He didn’t only play villains, but it was certainly his strong suit. What makes him so good in Sudden Death is that he’s able to have fun. Much like his character of Curly Bill from Tombstone, he jokes around a lot while also doing terrible things, moreso in Sudden Death than Tombstone.

For one thing, the villain in this movie (he’s given in a name in the credits, but we never hear it in the film because he’s simply the bad guy, and that’s all we need to know) does not bluff. He and his goons kill a lot of people. When one of his henchman shows up with Van Damme’s daughter, his asks why the goon didn’t kill her. (Having recently watched Swordfish, I appreciated seeing a villain in a hostage situation that was willing to kill to make a point.) I don’t find hostage executions entertaining, but I bring it up because despite these killings, it’s hard to completely hate Boothe. I think that’s a credit more to his performance than the character.

Powers Boothe has that rare ability to be a believable psychopath while also being someone you want to watch. Any villain he portrayed was instantly made more interesting by his presence. As for the character, I liked that he was nameless and simply wanted money. No cause. No revenge (although a resentment to the government is mentioned). He just wants money. He is just a bad guy, and Van Damme has to stop him. It’s impossible to top the Bruce Willis/Alan Rickman interactions in Die Hard, but Van Damme and Boothe come a lot closer than anyone would expect.

With a villain asking why a little girl wasn’t killed, you know this movie is going to have some brutal moments. Sudden Death delivers on the action front much more than I remember, but I think that’s because I used to think of this as a Van Damme movie, and now I see it as a Powers Boothe movie. So while there are fewer Van Damme kicks than I would like, there are still some hardcore moments. Aside from multiple people getting riddled with bullets, there are maimings aplenty, most memorably a chicken bone to the neck. And then there’s the lady in the penguin suit who is choked to death before being sent through a dish steaming conveyor. But let’s be honest, all you saw in that last sentence was “the lady in the penguin suit.”

So Sudden Death was originally written to be a parody (if IMDb trivia is to be believed), but it got completely overhauled...except for a fight with a penguin mascot. Yes, Van Damme fights a woman in a giant penguin suit. It’s not played for laughs, but it’s impossible to take it seriously, even when it ends in a brutal death. It’s so randomly goofy. But when you look at the film as a whole, it seems like they were torn between making a serious movie and a tongue in cheek movie. It ended up being serious, but so many silly aspects remain (presumably from the original parody script) that it can be enjoyed on a comedic level too.

The penguin fight is the highlight, but later in the movie Van Damme suits up as a goalie and takes to the ice. And he makes a game-saving goal! That’s silly enough, but when he gets back to the locker room, he fights a full goalie gear. Seeing a goalie in full gear kick someone in the face is something I didn’t know I wanted to see until Sudden Death.

I suppose that sums up my thoughts in general about Sudden Death: it’s something I didn’t know that I wanted to see. It took years of watching other action movies to get to the point that I realized this movie, in all its simplicity and goofiness, is the kind of movie I need sometimes.

No one knows anything is going on?

Obviously I liked this movie this time around, but there is one aspect of it too ridiculous to ignore: despite multiple acts of violence no inside or outside the arena knows what is happening until the very end of the game when the scoreboard blows up. Here are a few things that go unnoticed:

  • Gunfire in general in the arena, even it does happen during a game.
  • A bazooka is fired at a helicopter outside the arena.
  • A zamboni exits the arena and dumps multiple dead bodies in the parking lot.
  • A sign outside the arena is destroyed with a bazooka.

I can forgive the gunfire inside going unnoticed, but the explosions and stuff outside not being picked up by the news is insanity. I know that the Secret Service basically says they’re going to keep this quiet, but once a helicopter takes a bazooka hit outside the arena, that goes out the window, right? Apparently not.

It mainly bothers me because the assumption is that no one is outside the stadium to witness any of this. The arena is in the middle of Pittsburgh! Sure, it’s not New York, but I still think an explosion at an arena would draw a few onlookers

I understand that this takes place before smartphones and the ubiquity of the internet, but word would still have gotten out that someone was firing a bazooka in downtown Pittsburgh. It mainly annoys me because the bazooka stuff was unnecessary. Just focus on Van Damme inside instead. I think the main point of that element was to have a few more explosions for the sake of explosions. That is one major downside to ‘90s action movies; they thought blowing shit up automatically made something more interesting. It didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it take me out of it a number of times.

Why do I own this?

It’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.

Random Thoughts

From the dark, early days of DVD: it's full frame, and it doesn't specify that on the cover. That was their go-to.

And there's a dead little girl within the first three minutes. A bit dark for what ends up being a fairly silly movie.

It is a dick move just showing up with tickets to a Stanley Cup game. He couldn't call earlier in the week?

So Van Damme is French Canadian, which is great because it's a decent explanation for his accent. But why is his last name McCord? Why not make it more French-sounding. It's just a pet peeve of mine, I guess.

Man, his kids are really butt hurt about Van Damme not being a "real" firefighter anymore. His job got you into Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, you jerks!

The dude staying with the chef's wife is dressed like a fucking vampire.

"You'll what, burn my toast? Ha ha ha!" I love the maniacal laughter. And he makes a good point, what is the chef going to do?

"Please, he needs a doctor."
Powers Boothe shoots him. "Not anymore."

Powers Boothe is not fucking around. Man, the body count is high early on.

I like a movie where all the goons really look like goons.

Van Damme is definitely not parent of the year material. Leaving the kids unattended at a major sporting event?

Speaking of Van Damme, he's very much a secondary character early on as the focus is more on the villains.

"We've messed up a few times since I've been an agent, but how the fuck did we lose the Vice President?!" What else has happened under this guy's watch?

Van Damme's son is a dick! He should be amped up to be at that game, but instead he just keeps fucking with his sister. And why does he have a fucking squirt gun with him? Ah. Chekov’s squirt gun.

"I'm Icey, the team mascot." No fucking shit, lady in the penguin suit.

So Van Damme's daughter is only saved due to lack of ammo?

"Would you like it if I filled your little mouth with spiders?" God damn, Powers Boothe!

That fight with the mascot is amazing. It's brutal (a hand in hot grease, death by strangulation in a dish steamer[!]), but it's all happening between Van Damme and a woman in a penguin suit.

So what happened to the penguin suit woman's body? I assume a goon got rid of it, but why didn’t we see that or at least have some dialogue about it?

"What the fuck is going on?!"
"Fuck you. And fuck your kid?"

"Is she up in the owner's box?"
"Maybe. Maybe she went out to dinner."
Man, such clever wordplay.

Van Damme stabs a dude in the throat with a chicken bone! I forgot how crazy, and enjoyable, this movie was.

I just realized who the Vice President is: Dewey Cox's dad. "The wrong hostage died!"

They shot a bazooka at two helicopters, and it blew up in between them somehow, only causing a rappelling soldier to fall. How did it not take out one of the helicopters?

Powers Boothe has a fake detonator that's actually a lighter? Did he get that at Spencer's Gifts? And that's a lot of forethought for a gag from a guy willing to kill so many people.

I'll give Van Damme's son a little credit. He tells him not to leave his seat, and that kid stays put for a while.

Not sure how being a firefighter means Van Damme's character has martial arts and MacGyver skills…

I'm not an action movie goon, but that seems like a terrible way to hold that weapon.

Van Damme's fake name, Tom Castillo, makes more sense than his character's real name.

"Maybe when you were born you had something wrong with your brain." You can tell from Boothe's reaction that she hit the nail on the head.

By the why, Boothe's little chats with Van Damme's daughter are oddly intense.

Van Damme must've caused multiple injuries with his jaunt through the seats, starting with that poor vendor he shoved down the stairs.

There must be fifteen or more shots of Van Damme's son just sitting at the game. Although they do mix it up now and then with him drinking a Coke to get some product placement.

Van Damme seemed to want the trainer in the locker room to die. He gave him no warning at all. Couldn't he have yelled "Hide!" or something?

I can't stress this enough: all the bad guys in this movie look so much like bad guys it's ridiculous. Why not have them dress up like hockey fans at least?

According to IMDb trivia, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins was a producer of this, and his wife came up with the story. I imagine the owner's wife, bored out of her mind at one of the games, imagining how awesome it would be if some terrorists stormed the owner's box during a game and threatened to blow up the stadium. Then maybe she wouldn't have to go to any more god damn hockey games!

No one noticed the roof opening during the game?

Finally, the scoreboard blowing up let's people know something fucked up is going on.

Why were the lights the terrorist and Van Damme were swinging on not on?

Even as everyone runs for their lives, Van Damme's lame ass son just sits there.

The shot of Van Damme's son sitting alone in the arena is my favorite shot in the movie.

Powers Boothe's disguise is hilarious.

His daughter technically saved herself. He was too busy trying to kick Powers Boothe's ass to help her climb back up.

I know nothing about helicopters, but that straight vertical fall seems impossible.

What an abrupt ending! It seems like there should have been another scene with the Vice President. Or a scene showing Van Damme back as a regular fireman a few months later or something.

And it ends with the kids saying he’s a “fireman,” which makes no sense. I don’t recall him putting out any fires. He acted more like a cop or bomb technician than a firefighter. But whatever, kids, at least you respect your father again, you high-standard-having shits!

Finally, why did they make it the son's birthday? It being the playoffs was the only reason they needed for Van Damme to spring the last minute tickets on them. Other than that, it doesn't factor into the story at all. And it makes it seem strange that the son gets so forgotten while Van Damme tries to save his daughter. His focus on his daughter and dismissal of his son reminded me of Interstellar. "Happy birthday, son. Now enjoy the game, and I'll see you after the explosion creates a frenzy and the bad guy plummets back into the stadium in a helicopter, which also explodes. Good job staying in that seat, by the way, slugger!"

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