Imagine Die Hard, except instead of being set in an office building, it's set in The Igloo, the former home of the Pittsburgh Penguins, on the same night the Penguins play the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
THAT MOVIE EXISTS. It's called Sudden Death, and it stars Jean Claude Van Damme as Jean Claude Van Damme, basically.
The film is probably best known for its infamous penguin fight scene, in which JCVD kills Penguins' mascot Iceburgh by way of an industrial dishwasher. (It's an absurd and overlong scene that inspired the Peter Griffin-fights-a-chicken-forever bit on Family Guy). But there's more to the movie than just JCVD fighting a giant penguin. Based on an idea by Karen Elise Baldwin, the wife of film producer and then-Penguins co-owner Howard Baldwin, Sudden Death is a non-stop thrill ride full of murder, martial arts, and mullets. And this weekend I watched it.
We open on a burning building, where Jean Claude Van Fireman is trapped under some rubble with a little girl he was trying to rescue. More rubble falls on them. The little girl is crushed. So too is Van Damme's character, Darren McCord, albeit only emotionally. The little girl was crushed literally.
Flash forward a couple years, and McCord is now removed from active duty, disgraced and divorced, and working as the fire marshal at The Igloo.
Four hours before puck drop on Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, McCord shows up unannounced at his ex-wife's place with two tickets -- one for his son Tyler, and one for his daughter, Emily. His ex is weirdly okay with this dickish power play that will leave her kids unsupervised in a crowded hockey arena while her husband works somewhere else in the building, and off they all go.
But little does McCord know he's bringing his children into the way of a terror plot. The vice president is going to be in attendance, and some very bad men are planning to do something very bad. They kill two Civic Arena security guards. Now the badguys have access passes to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final! (Note: Joe Thornton is one more playoff failure away from resorting to this approach.)
Once inside the building, the bad guys rig C-4 everywhere, and even take a moment to explode some officially licensed Penguins merchandise.
There's a lot of officially licensed Penguins merchandise in this movie.
It's 90 minutes until face-off. McCord walks his kids into the arena. In a cruel move, he hands his daughter off to the woman who plays the Penguins' mascot (because girls don't like hockey, they like giant stuffed animals), then he takes his son to meet Luc Robitaille in the Penguins' locker room.
McCord and Robitaille, who apparently wants to meet kids and talk to arena staff 90 minutes before the most important game of his life, have a brief, profane conversation in French.
On the way back from the room, McCord meets back up with his daughter, then changes a light bulb in the kitchen. His daughter sees it and is concerned that he might be a schmuck who changes light bulbs for a living now. Fortunately, his son assures her that “firemen don’t do that kind of stuff.” (It's suggested several times in this film that "fireman" is a job of note, and "fire marshal" is a lame job for uninspiring deadbeats that children shouldn't be proud of. What a pathetic, blue-collar job. Did I mention this story concept came from a rich person?
McCord leads his kids to their seats. He notices that his son has sneaked in a Super Soaker. It instantly becomes Chekhov’s Super Soaker.
The badguys have taken everyone in the vice president's box hostage. One badguy kills an old woman during the anthem, which is shocking, since you're not supposed to kill people during the anthem -- it's very disrespectful to the anthem. The main badguy is Powers Boothe, although his character's name is Joshua Foss, because the superior villain name of Powers Boothe wasn't available. We learn his plan: he wants a lot of money transferred by the government into his bank account. “At least one third of the money must be moved during each period of the game.” Oh man.
One of the Penguins' owners, who is in the box, says something nasty, as he is being inconvenienced by all this murder and hostage-taking. Powers Boothe fires back, “I’m not the one paying some Neanderthal $40 million to skate up a slab of ice.” It should be noted that this movie was made during the 1994-95 NHL lockout and, I repeat, co-written by the wife of an owner.
Meanwhile, McCord's unattended children are fighting about what a wimp their dad is now. “He’s too scared to be a fireman!” Tyler says, then he squirts Emily with the super soaker. She runs away, and Tyler elects to let her wander off at six years old because his dad told him not to leave his seat. He'll remain in that seat all film long, to the point of utter hilarity.
Meanwhile, Emily runs into the women's room and is instantly kidnapped by an evil woman who has murdered the woman who plays Iceburgh:
This is why you should never leave kids unattended. You never know what sort of trouble they'll get into.
The evil woman is now wearing the other woman's giant, penguin skin, I guess to ward off other predators or something. This evil woman appears to be acting alone, in her own action movie.
McCord returns and discovers Tyler was a dick to Emily. “You soaked her,” he scolds, confiscating Chekhov's Super Soaker, before going out to the concourse just in time to spot Iceburgh leading Emily away by the hand. He switches into INSTANT BADASS MODE, which is curious, since the movie just tried to convince us he's been traumatized and afraid for years.
Evil Iceburgh decides to take Emily up to the VP suite, where there are adults, perhaps because her maternal instinct kicked in when she came across an unattended minor. It's a toss-up whether Evil Iceburgh is doing a better job of caring for Emily than McCord is. But when Evil Iceburgh returns to the service level, she spots McCord, who sees his daughter’s Penguins hat, realizes something’s wrong, and starts the greatest fight scene in movie history:
I love the surprise reveal of her painted fingernails. It's a girl! (Yeah, you sexist, not all mascots are men.) Anyway, she performs surprisingly well for a woman in a mascot costume -- and she'd have done better had she tried a strategy besides "force JCVD's head onto a grill or into a deep-fryer" -- but in the end, she's no match for Jean Claude Van Damme's stunning array of sweet kicks.
With Iceburgh now burned alive in the dishwasher, the first act is over, and fittingly, the first period is over too. The action on the ice will mirror the action off it for the rest of the film. In fact, the movie even somehow links the Chicago Blackhawks, the enemy invaders, with the terrorists. Every time the terrorists get the upper hand, the Blackhawks score a goal. You know how the late Bill Wirtz, who was owner and team president of the Blackhawks until his death in 2007, tends to get a bad rap for the way he handled his team? Consider that he signed on to feature his team in a movie where they're deployed as a metaphor for a terrorist organization that murders old women and children in cold blood, holds the vice president hostage, and plans to kill 20,000 people in an arena explosion.
The metaphor's really overt, too. Shortly after killing Iceburgh, McCord grabs a security guard and tries to explain what happened, only to discover the security guard is a bad guy. As McCord stabs him to death with a chicken bone, he learns the whole building is rigged with bombs, and at the precise moment he realizes how overmatched he is, the Blackhawks take the lead.
McCord raids a desk, arming himself with a lighter and lighter fluid. At this precise moment, the Penguins tie the hockey game, just before the end of the second period.
“This place is ready to explode,” says Penguins' announcer Mike Lange. GET IT? GET IT?
McCord spends the first half of act three just running around the building, disarming all the bombs. It's not explained why he suddenly knows how to disarm bombs, and it's only weakly explained how he knows where every bomb is. (It's suggested that he knows the building so well he's able to correctly guess where the terrorists would place a bomb to do the most structural damage.)
A secret service agent named Hallmark, who's gone into the building to help McCord, tracks our hero down. They have a lengthy conversation, during which Hallmark could have killed McCord at any time, and he should have, since we discover almost immediately after they separate that he's a secret badguy.
Up in the VP suite, Powers Boothe brings up a scary point. “I wonder who gets the Cup if I blow up the building before the game is over?” It suddenly occurs to me that it's not just the 20,000 people in attendance that are in danger -- the Stanley Cup is threatened too! Oh my god, who will save Stanley!?
In an attempt to gain leverage on McCord, Hallmark tries to kidnap McCord's son. But the boy refuses to leave his seat, as per his dad's terrible instructions, and Hallmark is eventually scared off by an aggressive Penguins fan.
It's actually pretty embarrassing. If Hallmark can't handle a shouty Pens fan, he wouldn’t survive a day in the Prudential Center, let alone a fight with Jean Claude Van Damme, and unsurprisingly, he's killed in the very next scene, set ablaze by McCord, who has filled his son's Super Soaker with lighter fluid.
McCord calls Powers Boothe on Hallmark's phone. Powers Boothe inexplicably puts Emily on the phone. McCord immediately endangers her life by asking her to look around the room and tell her how many people are alive in there. My god, is he a terrible dad. Fortunately, Powers Boothe just hangs up, at which point Emily talks some smack.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she says.
“Oh, sure you are. I’m the scariest guy you’ve ever met."
“You’re the meanest.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Maybe when you were born you had something wrong with your brain?”
Powers Boothe seems weirdly hurt by this, and while he struggles to come to terms with the fact that this six-year-old just suggested he had a faulty brain, she slaps him. It makes the sound like an adult woman slapping an adult man hard. At the time, it seems ridiculous, but it turns out to be foreshadowing, because we will soon learn Emily is the strongest kid in the world.
Back on the ice, the plot calls for fictional Penguins' goalie Brad Tolliver to suddenly feel sick to his stomach, and he pulls himself from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final with a tummyache. We'll assume this is why he's fictional, as no hockey goalie would ever do this, let alone agree to do it in a movie. Real goalie Ken Wreggett, who's not a total baby, takes over.
Meanwhile, McCord is on the run from some thugs, and he appears cornered. We know he's in double trouble because at that precise moment, the Blackhawks score to go up 3-2 with just seven minutes remaining! But then he hatches a plan: he'll dress like Brad Tolliver, despite having no way of knowing Tolliver just left the game, and hide in plain sight on the ice! But when he magically gets into complete goalie gear in seconds flat and goes out there, his coach assumes Tolliver is all better and makes him replace Wreggett. Oh no! Now McCord is playing goal for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final! It's an upgrade on Marc-Andre Fleury, but it's still not ideal!
Instant breakaway! McCord rushes out to challenge and gets run over. Fortunately, the puck stays out. Unfortunately, he sustains an obvious concussion after hitting his head on the ice. “He hit it so hard his kids will be born dizzy,” says Mike Lange, in a line that would definitely be cut today. But he has to shake off the concussion immediately because there's hockey to play -- this too would be cut -- and the Blackhawks have another breakaway already!
McCord makes a sweet save, diving out of the way of the puck then catching it with his glove!
A butterfly goalie would have taken it in the crest.
Then, having literally saved Pittsburgh, he remembers he's got a building to save and decides to pull himself from the game. He does this by punching one of the Blackhawks right in the face and getting a game misconduct.
“Tolliver! That’s a $1000 fine!” the Penguins' coach shouts, seemingly more concerned with the lost money than the fact that Pittsburgh, trailing by one, will spend the rest of regulation on the penalty-kill.
McCord returns to the locker room and kills the two goons. But he's out of time! There are mere seconds remaining in the game, and the building will explode when the Blackhawks win the Cup, because Powers Boothe's financial demands have not yet been met!
BUT SUDDENLY LUC ROBITAILLE GETS A BREAKAWAY. One of the slowest men in hockey is in alone! Three breakaways in the last seven minutes!
Sadly, he’s so slow that somehow a defender closes on him in a hurry, to make it a 1-on-1.
But Robitaille undresses him, scores the game-tying goal with less than a second to go, thus giving McCord more time to stop the plot, and causing eyerolls for anybody who remembers how boring the real 1995 Stanley Cup Final was. A last-second game-tying goal? Come now. This was the trap era.
The game heads to sudden death, which -- hey! -- is the name of the movie!
The announcers explain the double meaning not once, but twice. Mike Lange, the second time: "The next goal is gonna win the Stanley Cup. That’s what sudden death is all about.”
As sudden death begins, McCord scales The Igloo from the outside, and fights a guard posted up there, somehow triggering the building's HISTORIC RETRACTABLE ROOF. In a surprising bit of realism, the roof malfunctions, as it often did, and fails to open all the way. But in an unsurprising bit of unrealism, nobody in the arena seems to notice the roof is opening and two men are fighting on the edge of it. They only notice when the badguy lands on the JumboTron and it explodes. Again we are reminded of the film’s name in this shot, which also exposes how few extras the film sprung for.
This is overtime in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final? It looks like a preseason game.
The Stanley Cup Final is ruined. McCord swings from a cable and throws an explosive into the vice president's suite, then crashes into it. All the exploding causes people to panic and flee, including Powers Boothe, who's apparently a bigger baby than Tummyache Tolliver.
Meanwhile, McCord's dumb son stays in his seat during an obvious terrorist attack BECAUSE HIS DAD TOLD HIM TO.
McCord returns to his son, thinking the danger is over. The kid's still there. “I didn’t move, dad," Tyler says. "I didn’t move. Not even when things blew up. I didn’t move.” What an idiot this kid is.
Powers Boothe almost gets away in disguise, but Emily recognizes him. He kidnaps her AGAIN. McCord, Powers Boothe, and Emily wind up back on the roof, where she's knocked over the edge and is left hanging from it, holding on for dear life.
Fortunately, and insanely, she somehow pulls herself up. You guys. She's six years old, and she does a full pull-up. Sam Bennett couldn’t do a pull-up! This is the strongest little girl in the world, and it suddenly makes sense why she slaps like Wonder Woman.
Powers Boothe almost gets away in a helicopter, but McCord shoots up, which is the direction of the helicopter, killing the pilot, and sending the helicopter crashing onto the ice. Powers Booth dies in the explosion. It is a… sudden death.
The last words of the film go to a proud little girl: “My dad is a fireman,” Emily says, and the credits roll on the best movie ever made. Five stars.