Movie Review: Sudden Death
February 8, 2009
A week after the inauguration of President Obama, Charlie Brooker wrote of contrasting feelings he felt watching the event. On the one hand, inspiration, the new, the fresh; on the other, the fear that at any moment the president would be gunned down. So ingrained is the image of the foiled celebration, the presidential assassination, that the idea of hope crashing to the ground in a second of gunfire seemed all too possible. It’s no surprise, for a surfeit of fictional rehearsals for such an ending lie scattered across the mediascape. Real death, the promise of actual murder, hides behind each frame. The simulacrum has a shadow. As Denis Leary once said,
‘We watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot live on TV one Sunday morning, we were afraid to change the fucking channel for the next thirty years.’
The catastrophe plagued Brooker in hypothetical tones. But what if Obama’s ceremony had been ruined by ne’er-do-wells? His brawn may have been ample to fend them off, to beat them into submission, perhaps. Spider-Man’s already helped him, but who’s to say Peter Parker isn’t still wandering around taking pictures? On Obama’s back is one large shield constructed to deflect any number of Fox News wet dreams. The bullets will have a tough job, but one may still penetrate the shield, one gruesome nightmare of Coulter wishes and Limbaugh imploration.
What hero might fight this repulsive ‘what if’? Who will be the palliative delivered to this form of nauseating drivel, the ballads of talk radio and nonsense television? Who’s the destroyer of pernicious dreams? Who’s not only fit to stride into the hypothetical realm but to annihilate that very realm, to kill ideas best not thought?
The volunteers are many, as are the nominees, but only one is truly qualified for the task.
Jean Claude Van Damme, he is the legitimate heir to reality’s throne of decency. The man’s monopoly on virtue is surely enough to kill a few hastily spoken words, to smash hate-filled hypocrisy. And as for any actual bullets, a swift kick would be enough to deflect them.
Van Damme has experience with this sort of thing. Important people assailed by the iniquitous, it’s merely something to do before lunch. His threshold for dealing with any swine attacking the Executive Branch is unlimited. Were his CV geared solely towards the attainment of such a job, one image would adorn it: the poster for Sudden Death.
It’s the final of the Stanley Cup. Van Damme, being a liker of the ice hockey, is there with his two kids. The Vice-President, being a liker of the ice hockey, is also there. A team of nasty terrorist-types, who may or may not be likers of the ice hockey, are there too. They take the VP and his party hostage, demanding grand sums of money or else murder and mayhem. And they have the arena wired to blow, with devices planted in every nook and cranny. Van Damme discovers this plot – then one of his kids gets kidnapped – then he decides to kill the bad guys and save the day. ‘**** you and **** your kid,’ says one of the bad guys. Van Damme dons his hero coat and replies, ‘Now you die.’
Sudden Death? But how sudden? Not that sudden it turns out. It’s a good thirty-five minutes before Van Damme kicks anyone. I find it difficult to hide my disappointment, and words cannot possibly convey the hurt I feel over the misnomer, those lies that are spread in Van Damme’s name. Thankfully, lies soon transform into truth. Suddenness enters the present as Van Damme’s bouncy violence takes centre stage.
The tense hail of images proves effective, fun shifts in action creating a captivating feast for the eyes. Fights in kitchens, sharp one-liners, bones stabbed through the throat, all the proper ingredients are here. A bodily-armament montage segues into a tussle with a rogue agent. Early sacrifices in the name of plot exposition become forgotten as a film festooned with men sporting bullet holes in the head comes into focus. What was that guff about Van Damme taking his kids to the game? What boringly elaborate methods to capture the Vice President? All I see is Van Damme lighting a man on fire and throwing a helicopter into a big hole in the roof.
After a while, approaching the film’s thrilling denouement, I realised something: Van Damme already made this film. He made it seven years hitherto. It starred someone else and had a different name. In fact all the names were different. And it was set in an office building instead of an ice hockey arena. Die Hard is maybe the best film Van Damme’s made and not starred in, or had anything to do with.
Thus the writing begins before Van Damme. The words flow in anticipation. They pave a road leading to creation. The creation of what? Of Bruce Willis, of Alan Rickman, of scowling faces twisted, producing a wonderfully coruscating VHS reality. These are words sent from the present to the past. Every time Van Damme communicates with the authorities outside he is pumping words through a wormhole in time. Every time Van Damme tries to rescue his loved one he is slamming words into the abyss of the past.
It’s only in moments of real madness that he ceases the transmission of words. Such as the outlandish sequence where he joins the ice hockey game, makes the save of the year and then sentimentally gestures ‘I love you’ in sign language to his son in the crowd. I shit you not. If only John McClane had stopped for a moment to play skittles and then tap out ‘You complete me’ to his wife in Morse code.
Van Damme may have moved into the mould of self-deprecating art-house icon (and considering the quality of JCVD, we ought to be thankful), but his rich period of mid-'90s action goodness remains a joy to come back to. The era of genuine Van Damage is forever accessible through the gifts he has given us.
Jean-Claude Van Damme