Sudden Death

(Peter Hyams, USA, 1995)


Sudden Death is a curious film, principally because of the heroic identity it tries to invest in action icon Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Van Damme is a figure who divides aficionados of this genre. A friend of mine recently became obsessed with action cinema; confronting my resistance to Van Damme, she howled her appreciation: "But Adrian, he's such a girl!"

My friend had just watched Van Damme in Hard Target (1993). Like a lot of hunks who have risen up from the unfussy world of B grade action films, Van Damme spends most of his time in this film scowling, being sadistic and, above all, showing off his muscly good looks. It's that preening narcissism (common, of course, to many male athletes and body-builders) which makes him a girl.

But perhaps this star's propensity for narcissism has bothered him. As he climbs the steps toward the big-budget extravaganza, Van Damme is looking for ways to become more of a character, less of an icon. In Sudden Death, this means he is a fallen hero, wrestling with a broken family and the memory of a trauma that ended his fabulous career as a fireman – the latter recounted in a prologue reminiscent of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

Naturally, McCord (Van Damme) will have to somehow re-win his heroic place in society especially since even his kids mock him for having become just "a guy who fixes light bulbs". As a security guard at a big sports event, McCord finds himself inadvertently in the right place at the right time to face a super-villain (Powers Boothe) who has rigged the crowded stadium with explosives.

So Van Damme gets to behave like Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988) or Steven Seagal in Under Siege (1992) – as the supposedly little, everyday guy who reveals his heroism and strength in extraordinary circumstances.

Action movies, like horror or teen films, have to be judged and appreciated these days for the often tiny variations they make on very familiar generic patterns. Take the bad guy, for instance. Boothe here plays the classic psychopath exactly as he did in Walter Hill's underrated Extreme Prejudice (1987): smooth, smart, malevolent. But there are slightly new twists. Not only is this villain a fallen agent, he is also the anti-Gump, declaring with panache: "Life's just a shitbox of ironies!"

There are aspects of the film which are routinely clever. Director Peter Hyams (The Presidio, 1988), who doubles as his own cinematographer, uses the approaching deadline of the hockey game's finale to build intense suspense. The ending is genuinely spectacular. And, like Walter Hill, Hyams is adept at creating a claustrophobic sense of space: every location is a collocation of tight through-ways, low ceilings and cramped corners.

On the downside, Sudden Death is one of those movies that repeats every important line or narrative set-up exactly three times so that (as industry logic would have it) even the dimmest viewer can pick up on the cue. And its manner of depicting violence is a definite throwback to Van Damme's B grade origins. At first the film's action is surprisingly bloodless, more suggested than shown.

But once McCord gets into a one-on-one with Boothe's henchmen in a succession of colourful settings a kitchen, a basement, atop the stadium dome the film revels in a sadistic orgy of slicing, burning and disfiguration. And, amid this orgy, it is a sure sign of Sudden Death's mindless sexual politics that the worst tortures of all are reserved for a big, bad, muscly woman who is disguised as a lovable penguin hired to entertain the children at half-time!

Come to think of it, perhaps there is an obscure, psychological compensation-mechanism at work here. For if Van Damme is desperately trying to prevent us from noticing that he's such a girl, what tactic comes more readily to hand than the passing demonisation of utterly horrible, supposedly unnatural women characters?

MORE Hyams: End of Days, The Relic

© Adrian Martin January 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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