Saturday, 23 May 2009

Sudden Death (1995)

Catching up over coffee with a friend at an outdoor table I was trying to remember the title of a Jean Claude Van Damme film, saying “It’s not Kickboxer, the other one,” when a guy in his early twenties sitting next to us overhead and interjected, “Bloodsport.” He continued, “That was one of my favourite movies growing up. It was Van Damme’s first lead role.” A total stranger was opening up to us over a love of Van Damme. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I was once at a house party and was talking some JCVD and a ranItalicdom guy came up to me and advised me to see No Retreat, No Surrender (I have and it’s amazingly awful). Van Damme brings the people together, well, specifically brings together males in their twenties who spent their frustrated, overheated adolescence watching martial arts flicks. Back to the guy who knew the title of Bloodsport at the cafe. He threw in his five cents over the next Van Damme film I was planning to watch, Sudden Death: “That’s the one where Van Damme fights this she-male in a Penguin suit, some guy that has painted nails who you’re not sure if he’s a chick. They fight in the kitchen area and he/she eventually gets his hands boiled in the fry cooker.” I was totally sold on watching it then but it was capped off with the guy remembering, “It’s also the one with Powers Boothe as the bad guy.” Powers Boothe, the acting genius who played Cy Tolliver from the television series Deadwood? Let me at this movie already!

When I was a teenager I was resistant to watching Sudden Death since the trailer made it look like a carbon copy of Die Hard (right down to using Beethoven’s Ode to Joy overlaid over shots of action climaxing in the hero jumping off a high platform as an explosion happens in the background). I was a real John McClane fanboy at the time so I dismissed Sudden Death as a rip-off. Watching the Van Damme film for the first time recently, it was interesting to see that the film knows it is a Die Hard rip-off and knows that the audience would know that it is a Die Hard rip-off so it doesn’t waste any time and gives the audience what they want, setting everything up in the first twenty minutes of screen time. The set up is exactly the same as Die Hard: Darren McCord (possibly the most WASPish character name ever given to Van Damme) is a divorced former fire fighter, haunted by the tragic death of a little girl, who works as a fire marshal in Civic Arena Stadium while the Stanley Cup hockey play-offs take place and decides to take his two kids as a bonding experience. However, you know something is afoot with director Peter Hyams cutting to classic stock scenes where henchmen are halted by idiot authority figures with the line “Hey, what are you doing here? This is a restricted area!” before being met with the familiar PFFT PFFT sound of a pistol with the silencer capped on. The Vice President has decided to attend (played by awesome character actor Raymond J. Barry) and the darkened security of his box seat of the game is invaded by the sinister Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe), a villain that is essentially a variation on Tommy Lee Jones’ character in Under Siege (the rogue government agent left out in the cold who wants revenge and a big chunk of change). His plan is to kill a hostage at the end of every period of the hockey game unless he receives a bazillion dollars in off-shore bank accounts from the corrupt U.S. government. And Joshua is not too shy about killing people with this stock exchange:

Hostage consoling wounded agent: “This man needs a doctor!”
Joshua stands over the wounded man and shoots him: “Not anymore.”

Anyway sooner or later Van Damme stumbles across this sinister plot, starts icing terrorists left and right, disarming the bombs planted around the arena, and keeping in contact the stupid FBI (wait, Secret Service agents) outside who keep fucking things up, which leads to this classic exchange:

FBI Agent: “Have you had any contact with the aggressors?”
Van Damme: “I killed two. Does that qualify as contact?”

Then Joshua has one of his kids hostage (the little girl who practices sign language for no reason except for a later key plot point) and Van Damme is on the walkie talkie issuing threats, “Game over, pal!” The only real difference between Die Hard and Sudden Death is that every fifteen minutes you have a cut away to a hockey game being played and announcers yelling things like “Oh Stop The Press!” There's even a time-out from the action where Van Damme hides in a hockey player's outfit and plays as the goalie, halting a puck from shooting through, making his other child (the moppet who played Tom Hanks' son in Sleepless in Seattle proud).

Now Sudden Death offers two main pleasures. First, there is Powers Boothe as Joshua Foss. Boothe as an actor with his silky voice and glowering visage is pretty much awesome and his role is an underwritten part that he can perform in his sleep, injecting his performance with considerable charisma and menace. He brings gusto to such Big Bad Wolf moments as when he looks Van Damme’s six-year-old daughter in the eye and says, “I’m gonna kill your daddy. What do you think about that?” The scenes with him and Raymond J. Barry arguing over the value of human life etc is like watching two teachers give an acting workshop on how it is done, how you turn clichéd dialogue into engaging material, so pay attention, class, as your notes will be reviewed after the session. Second, the screenwriters must have given themselves a challenge to entertain themselves while they lifted scenes wholesale from Die Hard, Under Siege and Speed, which is that Van Damme should not use firearms throughout the majority of the movie. Instead each bad guy he kills is performed with some unique, grotesque and comic manoeuvre that is established in the first fight scene, previously mentioned, where he kung fu kicks a transvestite in a Penguin mascot costume around a kitchen, culminating in the tranny becoming strangled by a meat press machine. The next fight scene involves Van Damme snapping a left-over chicken bone and stabbing it into the neck of a terrorist who looks like Geddy Lee without the circular shades. The other memorable bit is where Van Damme finds a use for his son’s confiscated water pistol and some kerosene and MacGuyers together a miniature flame thrower when he is corned by the Secret Service agent turncoat who works for Joshua, lighting him up like he was a Guy Fawkes puppet. Fast forward to the climax and you have Van Damme swinging from a cord from the interior of the stadium dome, smashing into the box, shooting hostages left and right, chasing a disguised Joshua through the pandemonium and, rescuing his daughter for the second time. This leads to the awesome sequence where Van Damme climbs on the ladder trailing off the Joshua’s get-away helicopter, shoots the pilot, jumps off the ladder back onto the top of the stadium and watches Joshua scream as his chopper takes about five minutes to slowly descend vertically onto the abandoned hockey rink to his fiery demise.

Sudden Death was made when Van Damme was still a valuable commodity to Universal Pictures and he’s good in this, not really having much to say or do except run around in white t-shirts and perform a high kick every once and awhile. Yet his athletic prowess isn’t emphasised too much and the generic nature of the picture points towards his eventual decline with Double Team around the corner. I remember him appearing on Letterman to promote the film with Letterman providing the telling zinger, “Sudden Death? Isn’t that the title to all your movies?”

Deadly Force (1983)

A friend found this gem on ex-rental VHS, which positions itself as a Dirty Harry knock-off but sillier, like it was in a tongue-in-cheek precursor to the Naked Gun series with a larger tally of grisly onscreen murders. I could only imagine what the filmmakers would say if they were given a retrospective documentary about Deadly Force: “You see, we wanted to give people a cop movie but we just wanted to tweak the clichés a little bit, poke a bit of fun at the super-cop formula. In a lot of ways, this movie was ahead of its time.”The film is a vehicle for Wings Hauser, a stock Hollywood action hero type, who likes a cross between William Katt from The Greatest American Hero and Ron Pearlman as the Beast in the television show Beauty and the Beast. Blonde curly hair, a tall imposing frame, a prominent overbite and a tendency to flex his arse muscles in tight pale grey slacks: basically your high school jock grown up to be a stupid movie star with a name that makes him sound like an Austrian Hand-Pistol. What strikes you as amazingly awesome in the first ten minutes is that Wings’ character – Stony Jackson Cooper (yes, that’s his name!) – is given not one but two introduction shots. We first see him placing money on some rat gambling game, throwing a soccer ball around like a Junior High coach, and walking through the streets like a man of the people. The next shot we find him in a black suit, open collar white shirt, as if he spends time reading Bukowski and listening to Sinatra, playing at a piano in a darkened bar while hitting back a glass of gin and receiving a phone call from a friend in an emergency (“I got a Puerto Rican revolutionary wrapped up in dynamite!” is the information that comes down the telephone). I kept expecting the next shot to be a third introduction to Wing’s character, him painting a landscape while jet-skiing down at the beach and protecting a young boy’s sandcastle from some Nazi surf punks. Anyway it’s the 1980s and Stony is a super-cop, which is established with the brilliant 1980s soundtrack of anthemic rock guitars and Casio keyboard orchestration, but you also receive the vibe that Deadly Force was a failed TV pilot with such Magnum P.I. touches like Stony being picked up by Estelle Getty of all people as a taxi driver who functions as his secretary and switchboard while engaging in snappy patter.

Like any cop movie, we see Wings/Stony work his magic at an unrelated crime scene that opens the movie with the Puerto Rican revolutionary wrapped up in dynamite bit. Yes, Stony’s shifty friend who operates a factory has a terrorist threatening to blow up his abandoned warehouse so Stony strides on in and jimmies up the iron cast frames to the moving platform where this friend of Castro’s is yelling threats. Wings aims his 45 at him and the revolutionary grips the plunger to his explosives tightly, resulting in this exchange that stands as an example of the film’s snappy dialogue:

WINGS: “Is this is what I call a Mexican stand-off?”
REVOLUTONARY: “I’m a Puerto Rican and this is real dynamite!”
WINGS: “I’m French, English and German and this is a real gun!”

The movie tries to show Wings as being all crazy and above the law as he threatens the Puerto Rican with the hand-gun, but all that happens is Wings negotiates the terrorist to leave the building for half of the $20, 000 he is being paid to stop this guy. “You’re crazy, man!” says the Puerto Rican. It’s all a bit nutty really. Y’see, Wings is a former cop now bounty hunter who flies over to L.A. to help out an old friend who is a safecracker and who’s daughter was killed by the mysterious X serial killer (“This freak kills anything,” we’re told), pushed out of a seven storey window in the opening scenes. No sooner than Wings is back in his former city does he have his old superiors on his ass, warning him to lay off the case, follow the rules or as the stern black chief warns him, “I’ll put you in for so long they’ll have to air-mail in light!” (this is one of the many ridiculous analogies used throughout the film). Then Wings is roughed up by goons of the city’s kingpin who put away for a number of years so he decides to pull a Jim Rockford, sneak into the crook’s mansion, surprise his elderly chatty mother (another zany touch by the filmmakers), interrupt the crook sleeping and ask for two week’s grace while he finds the X killer in exchange for a cut of the ransom money. The crook agrees but not before warning him if he doesn’t pay up then he’ll be “dick-deep in dog-shit.” Wings then sees that the crook’s mistress is watching a porno with two ladies kissing each other’s breasts and he asks innocuously, “They’re gay?”, which is either proof of how awesome he is as a detective or how lame the film’s attempts at humour are.

For most of the movie you have Wings hitting the streets to guitar-based montage music, roughing up teenagers in arcades playing games like THIEF, eating ice-cream cones with uniformed police, or throwing a perp against a wall and yelling out bizarrely, “HEY I’M NOT GOING TO BUST YOU!” Meanwhile we have the mysterious X killer who looks like Daniel Johnston running around and strangling people like the hooker with a heart of gold who is singing to her baby in a church when she is killed (the pathos is staggering). You also have Wings swanning into his ex-wife’s apartment, a third rate Daryl Hannah type who is also a reporter on the X case and is angry with him for walking back into her life in the first scene they have but in the next scene he’s hanging around her apartment and being all buddy buddy. This leads to a bullshit scene where Wings is lying nude in a bathtub when the X killer tries to assassinate him with a automatic machine gun (an Uzi with a silencer) from the other building across from the apartment and we have Wings flopping about, trying to find some cover in the apartment, all the while showing off his arse in three consecutive shots. He and his ex-wife then have a third scene where she finds the apartment shot up and him bleeding but before you know it they’re making love-sex in a hammock to a saxophone soundtrack. Who can resist broken glass and blood as compelling aphrodisiacs? However, halfway through the film Wing’s ex-wife also performs an interview with a Success-Training Psychiatrist who criticises people on the way they pose and dress and tells them to find the “power” within. And he’s played by the smooth actor Paul Shenar who played Sosa in Scarface so you know immediately that he is the villain behind this all (alongside his dialogue with gems like “Everybody lies. Women lie when they put on make-up” or when asked if he was ever in prison he replies, “We’re all in prison.”) Sure enough there’s some complicated backstory where Sosa was a Success-Training leader in prison who was killing all those connected to his mysterious past and murdering some random innocent people too to throw the police off the scent. About twenty car chases later, a few more scenes of the angry police chief calling Wings a “glory boy” and a protracted shoot-out where Wings breaks into Sosa’s mansion, rescues his ex-wife while being a shot in the leg a couple of times, but then fires one bullet into the back of Sosa’s getaway car as it drives off which then EXPLODES causing the X killer to die in a fiery wreck.

Deadly Force was vintage ex-rental early-1980s VHS bullshit gold with its blend of hoary old cop movie clichés and lame attempts to parody said clichés, introducing us all to the third-rate star power of Wings Hauser who joins the esteemed ranks of direct-to-video action heroes.

Future Bullshit: Gamer (2009)

The jock-asshole pair of geniuses behind the Crank movies, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, are back with a film that will be sure to make online gaming nerds happy in a film surprisingly enough entitled Gamer (omg! lol!).

This trailer is amazing as it's like a throwback to all those lame hacker/computer game movies from the mid-1990s. In a world where it's the future and nerds get to play (in balletic slow-motion yoga moves) real life soldiers in Saving Private Ryan outtakes, even choosing Mr. This-Is-Sparta! himself, while once again we go through the same corporate control versus the freedom of sportstar slaves that we went through with the original Rollerball. I also like how Michael C. Hall, a very good actor, adopts a terrible Southern accent as if they'd worked out this character for Gary Oldman to overact in and couldn't sign him instead settling for Dexter himself.

It'll be interesting to see if a film like Gamer can lure actual gamers out of their online worlds and into a cinema where they can watch a movie that remediates the gaming experience but which they can't play themselves!