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 random 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?”