“Sudden Death” is considered by many to be Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best ’90s movie, which it could very well be and still be a bad movie. This is the one where he plays a beloved hockey arena fire inspector who saves Pittsburgh from annihilation through his twin powers of playing hockey and kicking people. It is set in a fictional universe in which Americans love hockey and would be upset if Pittsburgh were annihilated.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That’s easy to do when you’re talking about a film that was assembled from prefabricated parts with simple-to-follow instructions, like a bookcase.
1) Insert serious, patriotic-sounding music over the opening credits.
2) Attach prologue in which the hero fails to save someone’s life in the course of his duties, thereby giving him cause for self-doubt that he can overcome by doing something heroic.
3) Jump ahead two years, giving the impression that the hero has done nothing during that time but sit in a dark room and regret what happened in the prologue.
48) Place villain’s inexhaustible supply of goons and henchmen next to hero, and apply gentle pressure until hero has murdered them all.
49) Finagle plot so that hero’s obscure or useless talent becomes the very thing needed to save the day.
50) Redeem hero in the eyes of his partner/children/boss/whoever.
To all of this “Sudden Death” adds a veneer of sociopathic cruelty, delighting in the traumatization of children and the needless (from a plot standpoint) death of various innocents. Such things make an already bad film seem even worse, like a burglar stealing all your stuff and vomiting on your bedspread. On the other hand, we get to hear Powers Boothe say to a little girl, “Would you like it if I filled your mouth with spiders?” (Spoiler: she would not.)
Powers Boothe plays our chief villain, Joshua Foss, a disgruntled government employee (like there’s any other kind) with a terrific plan for becoming $1 billion richer. Listen to his plan, you will agree it is flawless. Knowing ahead of time that the U.S. vice president is going to be at game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, Foss wires the Pittsburgh Civic Arena with explosives and infiltrates the arena’s service staff. This gives him and his crew access to the VIP suite where the veep and his cronies are watching the game, pretending — as all good Americans do when American teams are in the finals — that they enjoy hockey. Foss and friends bust into the suite guns a-blazin’, kill the Secret Service agents, and hold the veep and his friends hostage. It is the second most violent thing ever to occur in a hockey arena, after hockey.
What are Foss’ demands? He wants a shload of CIA-seized money transferred to his off-shore bank accounts. If the transaction isn’t finished by the end of the game, he’ll blow the place up. And since there are three periods in a hockey game (who knew?), he’ll kill a hostage at the end of each one unless another 33% of the money has been transferred. This last part is just for flair. Foss wants the experience to be fun.
Like I said, it’s a brilliant plan and I’m astonished there wasn’t a string of copycat hockey-murder-extortion-hostage attempts after the film was released. But Joshua Foss didn’t count on one thing when he set his intricate, multi-stage, it-will-fail-if-even-one-thing-goes-wrong plan in motion. He didn’t count on Darren McCord: Sad Fireman.
Darren is played by JCVD, of course. The reason Darren sad is that a little girl died in his greasy arms in the movie’s prologue. Now he is a fire inspector at the arena that is home to the Pittsburgh Penguins (the hockey team, not the Antarctic waterfowl), and his own children — little turd Tyler (Ross Malinger) and dim sweetheart Emily (Whittni Wright) — are unsure whether he’s still considered a “fireman” (he isn’t) or if he’s a different kind of hero (he also isn’t). The kids are seated in the stands on this fateful night, sort of accompanied by their father, but mostly left alone because he’s on duty as the fire inspector. Darren is very busy “behind the scenes” at the arena, inspecting fires, or whatever.
Foss says menacing things to people in the VIP suite, pausing occasionally to murder one or more of them, while the game proceeds normally, the players and spectators unaware of the nefarious goings-on. Since an outright assault on the suite would be too risky, Darren plans to thwart Foss by sneaking around the stadium and disarming the explosives. But how does he know where Foss has planted them? Ah, that is simple. He uses his special skills as a fire inspector to determine the building’s weakest points, then assumes that’s where a well-prepared villain like Foss would plant bombs if he wanted to destroy the facility. Turns out he’s right! Every single time! And you thought fire inspectors were just killjoy bureaucrats who shut down concerts because people are standing in the aisles!
While Darren is skulking around disarming bombs (they teach you that on day one of fire inspector school), young Emily is taken hostage by one of Foss’ goons disguised as the Penguins’ mascot, a giant penguin named Icey. Emily met the real Icey before the game, and Icey seemed pretty nice, so Emily is understandably alarmed when the impostor Icey shoots a security guard right in front of her, then fires two more bullets into the guy’s corpse, then aims the gun at Emily and pulls the trigger and only fails to kill her because the gun is out of bullets. Ha ha! Entertainment!
Emily is then taken to the VIP suite, where she joins the other hostages and is queried by Foss concerning her interest in having a mouth full of spiders. Now it is personal for Darren McCord. Foss becomes aware of his thwart-full activities and sends one henchperson after another to kill him. Darren defeats them all in the arena’s kitchen, which was shut down earlier (they made a point of mentioning it) but which is for some reason still running at full steam, with pots boiling, grills fired up, and so forth — all so Darren will have handy, hilarious ways to kill his attackers. He stabs one guy in the neck with a chicken bone!
We eventually arrive at the thing we suspected was coming but that we didn’t think the movie would actually try to pull off because it sounds more like a parody of a JCVD movie than a real JCVD movie. I’m referring to the sequence where Darren uses his hockey-playing skills to save everyone. Like everything else in these prefabricated movies, this was telegraphed earlier when it was mentioned that Darren had played semi-professional hockey in his younger, pre-fireman days. (There are no extra parts in an assemble-it-yourself action flick!) To hide from Foss’ crew, Darren takes the place of the injured Penguins goalie, who probably has a name and was probably played by a real Penguins player. No one realizes he’s an impostor because he’s wearing the face mask. Plus, let’s be honest, all hockey players look alike.
Does Darren, in disguise as the goalie, have to play in the game? He does. Does he prevent the other team from scoring, thereby sending the game into overtime and extending Foss’ deadline? He does that, too. Do the game’s announcers describe Darren’s save as “the save of the year”? They do. Is this plausible? As plausible as anything else, yeah.
But you can’t save the world through excellent goaltending alone. Being a superior fire inspector with clairvoyant knowledge of where terrorists have planted bombs isn’t enough, either. Sooner or later, you have to swing down from the top of the arena on power cables and light fixtures, throw a jar of explosive white powder onto the roof of the VIP suite, fly in through the hole created by the explosion, and save your daughter. Your stupid son is still sitting by himself in the stands, where you left him, so don’t worry about him. And where are the police in all this? Oh, they’re useless, of course. Have you not seen this kind of movie before? It’s one of our most popular models!