Sudden Death: When Jean-Claude Van Damme Checked Die Hard
It’s Van Damme on ice in Sudden Death (1995).
Yes, we all love Die Hard. While it might technically owe its roots to other disaster films like Towering Inferno, when it was released in 1988 it was a huge sensation and almost immediately created its own genre of action spin-offs which is still going strong today.
From Anna Nicole Smith in Skyscraper (1996) to Dwayne The Rock Johnson in… Skyscraper (2018), almost every action star of all levels has seemingly had their chance to fill out a “Die Hard but with_____” statement.
One of the most ultimate from the list has to be Jean-Claude Van Damme in Sudden Death. Released in 1995, Van Damme gives one hell of a Bruce Willis cowboy impression. And while the original Die Hard will always be better perhaps, JCVD’s attempt deserves its time in the ultimate sun as one of the most outlandish, unbelievable and ridiculously awesome movies of Van Damme’s career.
Die Hard for Dummies
Not to sugarcoat anything here, Sudden Death blatantly copies Die Hard in just about every way. We’re seven years past the original here, so everything is fair game and I doubt anyone who even worked on one minded the re-hash coming out.
It’s funny to think about the decision-making that went into the script and idea from screenwriter Gene Quintano (who, by the way, is best known for penning several Police Academy movies and the action parody Loaded Weapon 1 – not exactly known for his originality).
In Die Hard we have Bruce Willis play John McClane – a heroic cop from New York. So, boom, let’s make Jean-Claude Van Damme play Darren McCord – a heroic firefighter from Pittsburgh. They’re both recently divorced and the loving father to their estranged kids. (Although, while the fatherly relationship is pretty subdue in Die Hard, Sudden Death reaaaaaally makes a meal of this – which works because they never even try at a love story.)
That’s just a start, we’ll get into more of the similarities later. But suffice to say, you know what you’re getting into and pretty much every beat of the action from the very beginning. However, it doesn’t matter from a view-ability factor because we have some very ultimate variables that are actually different.
The Most Ultimate Hockey Movie Ever
Sudden Death is a sports movie! Yes, it’s an action movie through and through, but I’d be damned if it isn’t subtly one of the best – at least most “ultimate” – hockey movies ever made. I mean there is some impressive stuff going on.
The film budget was reportedly $35 million (a very large number for the time), but you’d have to imagine a huge part of that that went directly to the massive amount of footage of a fully packed Civic Arena (aka the House That Lemieux Built) in which we get all the cinematic bells and whistles of a loud and raucous Stanley Cup playoff – game 7 of the finals no less!
I’d love to see a 30 for 30 made about this fictional finals as it’s one of the most inspiring stories ever fictionalized. Not only do we have a full arena for the majority of the film and the action, but Van Damme (loosely explained as “used to be a goalie”) even has to fill in for a bit of the action and NO ONE NOTICES. Not the fans, not his coach, not his teammates! Yet, his son, hundreds of yards away in the stands figures it out. Amazing!
It’s also a hockey movie because there’s lots of fights. And what hockey fan doesn’t love some good fisticuffs. Even if it’s with guns and hockey skates and against a mascot (one of the greatest moments in action movie history, by the way).
Powers Boothe as Hans Gruber
But if we’re going to talk about elements of ripoffs (without making this another installment of Eric LaRose’s COPYCATS! series on this site), we have to talk about Powers Boothe performance as Joshua Foss.
The only thing lacking from Boothe’s role are the German-inflections in his bourgeois demand threats that would make it a 100% complete homage to Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. (Our UAMC pick for most ultimate bad guy of all time, fyi!)
Foss arrives in a cuff linked suit to kidnap and ransom a Vice President so as to unfreeze “assets” from offshore bank accounts and we know exactly just what bad guy character mold we’re dealing with here.
But, to his credit, Boothe is damn good in the role. Especially up against Van Damme’s performance – which is sad to say just a bit more wooden than usual – steals the show.
The High Stakes of Sudden Death
It’s a little hard to classify Sudden Death as either a boom or a flop. While it reportedly only earned $65 million at the box office against its $35 million budget, it also apparently did very well on home rentals and overseas. It also middled out with critics who praised its action and scope, but felt it otherwise didn’t display a lot of “common sense” per Roger Ebert’s review.
From an Ultimate Action Movie Club perspective though, I’d have to say it’s one of Van Damme’s greatest achievements. And I’d even dare to say that in a few ways, it’s even more enjoyable than its original formula Die Hard.
Sudden Death finds a rare balance between its parody-esque script with some very fun and awesome direction by Peter Hymans who takes the job seriously enough to make fight scenes with “Iceburgh” – the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot – and Van Damme using a toy squirt gun as a flamethrower realistic and exciting.
The rooftop finale – again, a la Die Hard – culminates with Van Damme and baddies fighting overhanging a retractable roof where you can literally see the game (with all the fans included) unfold below. Now that’s spectacle!
And while the actual climax features a helicopter obviously being slowly lowered down towards the ice (really wish could have been in the room when whatever safety expert had to explain why it wouldn’t be doable any other way) isn’t the best. It’s funny. And it works. And it’s awesome and I’d highly recommend watching it again and again.
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