"Sudden Death," When Jean-Claude Van Damme Kicked The Pittsburgh Penguins Mascot
Twenty years later, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle set during the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals is still mostly ridiculous. It's a good thing.
The year was 1995. Jean-Claude Van Damme, the game of hockey, and the action movie genre in general were all on the beginning of a barely perceptible downslope after amazing runs for all three. There was just enough left in the tank for each of these seemingly disconnected entities to enjoy one last moment of glory, though, and results were memorable, if not exactly good. All it took to bring them together was Powers Boothe kidnapping the Vice President of the United States during the Stanley Cup.
It's strange, in retrospect, that no one thought of that earlier.
Sudden Death is a strange yet fun popcorn movie, allowing The Muscles From Brussels to play someone other than a cyborg, or a cop, or a time cop, or himself. It also allowed the then-co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Howard Baldwin, to film a really good case for replacing the team's decrepit arena, under the guise of making a not-bad-but-not-good-either action film during the 1994-95 NHL lockout. Baldwin is credited as producer, and his wife, Karen Elise Baldwin, gets story and associate producer credits. The (non-hockey) violence in Sudden Death is pure throwback Hard R stuff, which is refreshing for those of us who have had loved ones smothered by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the premise—c.f. the whole Powers Boothe Kidnaps The Vice President thing—is so Rube Goldberg-ian as to render any actual tension more or less non-existent. It mostly works, but not because any of it actually works.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is Darren Francis Thomas McCord, a Pittsburgh firefighter whose traumatic experience while trying to save a little girl has left him divorced and doing Fire Marshall Bill duty at Civic Arena. Foolishly thinking the most important game in hockey is not as important as spending time with family, McCord brings his two children with him to the game. A pleasant night is ruined when McCord's daughter witnesses the team's mascot—Iceburgh or Icey P or Penguin Pete or whoever—murdering someone. This, understandably, is not the sort of family-friendly entertainment Van Damme signed on for.
Penguin Pete's homicide, it becomes clear, is part of an elaborate scheme perpetrated by Powers Boothe to get $1.7 billion into his hands, and to blow up the admittedly replaceable arena if he doesn't get his way. The Vice President of the United States is held hostage, but because Raymond J. Barry is neither Joe Biden nor Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it's hard to care much. The Veep is eventually saved, I think. Biden would've fought his way out of this situation himself, all while probably wearing a sweet Ron Hextall Flyers throwback. But this is a movie, so some suspension of disbelief is required.
But let's un-suspend it and be real: taking the Vice President hostage during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals is not a good plan, and not just because it's unwise to base a convoluted scheme upon a game that, up to 1995, had only occurred ten times in the then 50-plus year history of a best-of-seven Stanley Cup. Say [Penguins prospect Ian Moran, playing] Chris Chelios scores another goal here in Game 1, or maybe the fictional yet legendary goaltender Brad Tolliver has a shutout in Game 5, and months of planning go up in smoke and the C-4 inside Civic Arena doesn't detonate until the middle of some Phish concert in 1997. This leaves Boothe waiting until Game 7 of the NBA Finals, or the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, or God forbid the ArenaBowl to try and hold the Vice President hostage all over again. We've come to expect better strategy from Powers Boothe, is what I'm saying.
Howard Baldwin had qualified success as both a professional hockey owner and a movie producer, and Sudden Death allows him to indulge in both of his passions. Baldwin's wife came up with the story, and the pair wisely hired someone who wrote a couple of Police Academy sequels to make it a reality. A weird reality where it's hella easy to hold the Vice President hostage, and acceptable for JCVD to fight a woman so long as she's dressed as an anthropomorphic penguin. It is also very easy in said reality to usurp the identity of a really sick goaltender—anyway, easy enough that a famed kickboxer from Belgium can do it—and make an awesome save which delays the death of 10,000 fans and 7,000 cardboard cutouts. No reality where Powers Boothe dies is a good one, but at least here he's trapped in a burning helicopter for so cartoonishly long that it's actually kinda funny.
If Peter Hyams is not underrated as a director, then he is at least a director whose successes you mutter under your breath, Timecop aside. A larger number of people than is strictly logical carry an obsession with some Peter Hyams film or other, be it Capricorn One, the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines action-comedy Running Scared, or my personal white whale: the "literally High Noon on space meth," John Ratzenberger-head-essploding classic Outland.
Powers Boothe, America's sweet mesquite voice of insanity, has a boatload of fun as the ruthless villain, shooting up mayors and caterers with gleeful abandon. (There is actually a novelization of Sudden Death, read by Mr. Boothe himself, and boy am I treating myself this week.) We all know that JCVD will win in the end, and that Boothe's loss will be as memorable as it is inevitable. It is not for nothing that Powers Boothe is thought of as the San Jose Sharks of character actors.
Jay Caufield, who spent most of his NHL career either on the bench or the penalty box, plays goaltending legend Brad Tolliver, while the International Hockey League's Cleveland Lumberjacks punctuate the successes of domestic terrorism as the ersatz Chicago Blackhawks. Dorian Harewood, who voiced the Larry Johnson Monstar in Space Jam, is similarly serviceable as the Secret Service mole. Serviceable is effectively Sudden Death's middle name: Sudden Serviceable Death would have been a solid working title for the film.
Nightmares of Lord Stanley's Cup being hoisted (again) in the dead-eyed Disneyfied suburbs of Orange County or the dead-eyed Scientologist-controlled suburbs of Tampa are all too real at the moment. Terrorism is also unfortunately all too real, but we have much more invested in preventing another 9/11 than we do in preventing another Lightning Stanley Cup win. (We also actually have a Vice President who kinda sorta likes hockey, but I doubt the Hextall/Hakstol Flyers will win it all before Biden leaves the Naval Observatory.)
I also doubt that we'll have another movie quite like Sudden Death, a practical effects spectacular which is at once an advertisement for hockey and for staying the way fuck away from a hockey arena. No matter who wins the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals, we all lose for no longer halfheartedly caring about a Belgian pretending to be a firefighter pretending to be a goalie. The game has changed.