Van Damme's the man, but the man ain't the movie in "Sudden Death," a whipcord-taut actioner that's bigger and better than its main star. Reuniting the Muscles from Brussels with "Timecop" helmer Peter Hyams, this "Die Hard in a Hockey Arena" scores low on originality but high on sheer oomph.

Van Damme’s the man, but the man ain’t the movie in “Sudden Death,” a whipcord-taut actioner that’s bigger and better than its main star. Reuniting the Muscles from Brussels with “Timecop” helmer Peter Hyams, this “Die Hard in a Hockey Arena” scores low on originality but high on sheer oomph, signaling rosy numbers internationally but perhaps less of a stir domestically, unless the pic manages to play into overtime beyond the pre-Xmas crush. Film opened strongly in selected Latin American territories last month, confirming Van Damme’s consistent B.O. pull in foreign markets. Universal opens it domestically Dec. 22 .

The surprise with “Sudden Death” is that the production is as much the star as the name on the marquee: Van Damme’s balletic fighting style is soft-pedaled to the point where any moderately accomplished action star could have played his role, especially with the proficient Hyams at the helm. As he continues his gradual career swerve away from hard-core martial arts pics to more textured roles, Van Damme still shouldn’t start cutting his English or acting classes.

Pacey opening sets the tone, with Van Damme intro’d as Darren McCord, a fireman who’s mildly traumatized by being trapped in a burning house while trying to rescue a child. Flash forward two years and he’s now a (divorced) fire marshal at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, whither he and his two sprigs, son Darren (Ross Malinger) and daughter Emily (Whittni Wright), go for a playoff game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. Also due in the audience that evening is the U.S. vice president (Raymond J. Barry).

Script wastes no time dawdling over character: The action elements start appearing right after the main titles, with Hyams cutting back and forth between scenes of McCord collecting his kids, and various members of a gang led by smooth-talking psycho Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe) prepping for some kind of major hit.

Aforesaid hit takes place some 20 minutes in, as Foss & Co. take over the VP’s box and hold its human contents ransom for a cool $ 1.7 billion currently held by the U.S. government in frozen foreign-country funds. Time limit for the transfer is the length of the ice hockey game, with equal parts deposited during the three periods. Oh, and he’d also like “world peace, an end to bigotry, and no more minimalls,” says Foss.

By the third reel, pic has comfortably settled into “Die Hard” territory, with McCord on the loose, young Emily also held hostage in the VP’s box, and the main cast talking to one another by mobile phones. As McCord scampers round the bowels of the arena trying to disconnect the 10 bombs rigged by the baddies, Foss occasionally blows away a hostage to keep the CIA’s eye on the ball.

Basically, this is straight action stuff with a vague martial arts riff in the fight scenes. Though the pic is already a third over by the time Van Damme gets a chance to do any twirls, he’s well served by director Hyams in the physical sequences. Hyams is one of the few mainstream American helmers who’ve adopted the Hong Kong wisdom that martial arts sequences are as much about cutting, humor and camera angles than sheer technique, and, like the whole pic, the fight scenes have the momentum and contained power of a truck in freefall.

Aside from the two kids (mostly used for light relief, or to play up McCord’s “sensitive” side), the movie is a two-character affair, with Boothe spitting out sub-Alan Rickmanisms and Van Damme somewhat uneasily stuck between a failed family man and all-out action hero. On this evidence, the Belgian Bomber still isn’t ready for real character roles.

But none of this really matters. As a straight-arrow, medium-budget actioner, “Sudden Death” more than delivers the goods, with a low-budget energy and humor that never lets up. Hyams’ restless camera has as good an eye for close-up drama as for big visual moments like Van Damme’s duel atop the arena’s roof, and effectively ditches his previous trademark of “color noir” effects and dramatic use of single light sources.

Steven Kemper’s restless editing and John Debney’s anvil-hard, percussive score are further pluses. Special effects are good and effectively integrated with genuine Pittsburgh locations, with no lingering over their hey-wow aspects.

Sudden Death

Production

A Universal release of a Signature/Baldwin Cohen production, in association with Imperial Entertainment. Produced by Moshe Diamant, Howard Baldwin. Executive producers, Ash R. Shah, Sundip R. Shah, Anders P. Jensen, Sunil R. Shah. Co-producers, Richard Cohen, Jason Clark, Jack Frost Sanders. Directed by Peter Hyams. Screenplay, Gene Quintano, based on a story by Karen Baldwin.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Hyams; editor, Steven Kemper; associate editor, Jeff Gullo; music, John Debney; production design, Philip Harrison; art direction, William Barclay; costume design, Dan Lester; sound (DTS digital), Les Lazarowitz, Gary Bourgeois, Brad Sherman, Tom Perry; visual effects supervisor, Gregory L. McMurry; special visual effects, VIFX; special effects coordinator, Garry Elmendorf; digital effects supervisor, John Des Jardin; associate producer, Baldwin; line producer, Deborah Lee; assistant director, Jack Frost Sanders; casting, Penny Perry Davis, Deborah Brown. Reviewed at Universal Studios, Universal City, Dec. 5, 1995. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Darren McCord - Jean-Claude Van Damme Joshua Foss - Powers Boothe Vice President - Raymond J. Barry Emily McCord - Whittni Wright Tyler McCord - Ross Malinger Hallmark - Dorian Harewood Kathi - Kate McNeil Hickey - Michael Gaston Mrs. Ferrara - Audra Lindley
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