As a kid growing up, who were the movie stars you idolized? Depending on when you were a child, movie stars of varying genres and styles might appeal in one way more than another. As a child of the 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger hit the highs one would imagine as a child. Thankfully, I grew up able to watch films that a kid like me probably shouldn’t have been. Movies like Schwarzenegger’s Predator, Robocop, and Sylvester Stallone‘s Rocky IV were consistent videotapes that would fill my top-loading VCR. People look back on the 1980s with rose-colored glasses, but there are parts of that decade that truly live up to the hype.
The 1980s showcased the best and worst of what cinema had to offer. Coming out of the New Hollywood-era of the 1970s, edgy and independent films made way for more commercial properties gunning for maximized box office. Going commercial is not necessarily a bad thing. Heck, some of Hollywood’s finest comedies, dramas, and especially action films hit theaters during this decade. Films such as Lethal Weapon, Missing in Action, and Commando dominated cinemas, but one movie stood above all others: Die Hard.
Everyone and their aunt are familiar with the first adventure of everyman/hero John McClane: a blue-collar cop trapped in a skyscraper and battling terrorists. The simplistic-sounding title does a perfect job at encapsulating the simplistic-sounding plot synopsis. And anyone who has seen the film knows that much more goes on during the film’s 132-minute runtime. One of the most influential aspects of Die Hard came about how people described action films after the film’s release. Gone were the days of long-winded plot synopsis and spoiler-filled descriptors. Enter “Die Hard on a —.” It’s simple, on point, and took the place of wordy summaries that did the heavy lifting of breaking down a film. Under Siege? Die Hard on a boat. Con Air? Die Hard on a plane. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory? Die Hard on a train. After the release of John McClane’s first adventure, summarizing a film was never easier.
And while Die Hard was elevating action films from mindless fun into serious cinema, those looking for escapism still found options. As the calendar shifted from the 1980s to the 1990s, plenty of action heroes remained, ready to dole out their own brand of justice for a simplistic 90 minutes. Movie stars like Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, and Charles Bronson churned out many films to satiate any action film fan’s desire. Even NFL player Brian Bosworth threw his hat into the ring with Stone Cold. If Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are A-List stars in the action genre, Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, and Charles Bronson fall into the B and C-Tier levels. Just because an actor isn’t A-List, doesn’t mean they can’t deliver A-List action.
Take, for instance, the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Breaking out in the mid-80s, Bloodsport made JCVD a Hollywood name as he worked his way up the action ladder with Kickboxer, Universal Soldier, and John Woo’s American directorial effort, Hard Target. While he was never known to produce the best action, there was enough escapism throughout Van Damme’s films to make his movies easily digestible.
The peak of Van Damme came about in the mid-90s. Riding the highs that John Woo can provide, JCVD parlayed that into the biggest hit of his career with Timecop. By no means is Timecop a masterpiece or even that good of a film, but the high concept, entertaining visuals, and solid direction helped plant a flag to mark a high point in the action star’s resume. Having a high-concept, action blockbuster under his belt, one might assume the sky’s the limit.
Then came Street Fighter. I don’t want to dive too deep into why this 1994 video game adaptation killed all of JCVD’s momentum, as that is an article for another day. Let’s say that Van Damme’s ego and cocaine habit clouded his judgment during this time and stunted whatever momentum had built up. Needing a hit (pun intended), Jean-Claude Van Damme returned to the well and reteamed with his Timecop director, Peter Hyams, for the 1995 action film, Sudden Death.
And, boy, was it a welcome return. Taking the well-worn and established formula of the 1988 Bruce Willis action classic, the description of Sudden Death is Die Hard in a hockey rink.
Telling the tale of firefighter turned fire marshall for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Darren McCord. After a tragedy while on the job, his heroism is on the decline. Now changing lightbulbs within the arena, McCord scores Game 7 tickets to the Stanley Cup for his two kids. Also in attendance is the Vice President of the United States, seated in a luxury box. Unbeknownst to McCord or those associated with the Vice President, a group of terrorists infiltrate the arena, led by Joshua Foss—Powers Boothe in a glorious, scenery-chewing performance, and hold the Vice President hostage. While those in attendance are unaware of the drama unfolding in the luxury box and fixated on the game, only McCord can thwart the terrorists’ plot, save the Vice President and ensure the safety of everyone in the arena.
As you can see, the blueprints for Sudden Death are identical to Die Hard. Does that make Sudden Death a terrible movie? Certainly not! Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
I hear you asking what makes Sudden Death the best ’80s action film from the ’90s. First and foremost, if you’re going to copy the template for a movie, you make sure it’s a good piece of cinema. You build your idea and find a balance to perfect the action, characters, plot, etc. And while this article is subjective—I can hear people clamoring for Under Siege, Speed, or The Rock, I find that no other film feels quite at home as a non-’80s action movie than Sudden Death.
I’m going to get the quibbles out of the way first. I have never been a fan of the Muscles from Brussels. His limited acting chops, mixed with a lack of humor and awareness, hampers any hope of him being a top-tier action hero. While he has come into his own in later years with The Expendables II, JCVD, and the most recent entries of the Kickboxer franchise, the first half of his career was a rough ride. What you’re stuck with circa 1995 was limited in resources.
The thing director Peter Hyams did with these limitations was understand them, let JCVD do what he does best, and surround him with enough bells and whistles—not letting the leading man drag the film down. Most of the film has JCVD running around the arena by himself, taking out terrorists and defusing bombs. No idle chit-chat, no plot-driving speeches. Just keep him moving, kick butt and save the day.
While JCVD works to save the day, Powers Boothe saves the movie. Anyone unfamiliar with the actor knows he has a commanding presence, authoritative voice, and penchant for choosing memorable villainous roles. Powers Boothe is and will always be one of Hollywood’s finest character actors. From his turn in Tombstone, the underrated Extreme Prejudice, or as Cy Tolliver in Deadwood, the man knew how to steal a scene (or movie). And he does just that in Sudden Death.
As Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber stole the show in Die Hard, Powers Boothe does the same. What could be a stock villain who threatens everyone by extorting money; Boothe’s Joshua Foss elevates from stock to memorable with a maniacally gleeful undercurrent throughout the film. And there is a menace, including murdering hostages after each period concludes. Boothe’s performance and Hyams’s direction never linger on the violence. Both deftly balance Sudden Death by keeping it a “fun” R-rated movie instead of a gritty and realistic tone and closer in line to 1980’s action films.
The other aspect that elevates Sudden Death above most other action films comes with the usage of the locations. What’s the point of shooting in the Civic Arena, home of the Penguins, if you’re not going to utilize every inch of the space? Thankfully, over the film’s 110 minutes, Hyams and JCVD give the audience as much of a sight-seeing tour as possible.
As earlier mentioned, Powers Boothe holds the Vice President and an assortment of hostages in a luxury booth. During this time, Jean-Claude Van Damme battles henchmen in the kitchen, underground access areas, through the crowds, and into the player’s locker room. The highlight of these comes with the kitchen fight as McCord battles a female villain dressed as the Pittsburgh Penguins mascot. How freaking cool is that?
Let’s up the ante even more. At one point, JCVD’s character steals a Pittsburgh Penguins goalie uniform and is forced onto the ice to play a hockey shift. Does it make a lick of sense? Not at all, but I love it! Add on a visit to the owner’s box, non-hockey usage of a Zamboni, and a trip to the retractable roof, and you got yourself a movie that checks all the boxes!
And what I love about Sudden Death and ’80s action movies as a whole is they are written more for the moment than planning for the future. There’s a wistfulness where logic is kicked to the curb to service the experience. While we all love Die Hard, there are plenty of leaps in logic that we look past because the film is fun and entertaining. When you have a good, simple story with sharp direction and a cast firing on all cylinders, the moment is more important than the logic.
The same goes for Sudden Death. Am I saying it’s on the level of Die Hard? Not by a longshot. I am saying that everything you love about classic ’80s action films found its way into this 1995 JCVD film. It’s simple. It’s to the point. And it never lets up to ensure you are having a good time. And Sudden Death is a good time and then some. Without a doubt, for me, it’s the best ’80s action movie from the ’90s.