Ah, February. The August of winter. The time when football's over, but it's still too miserable outside to do anything on the weekends, so we all just hibernate without anything to watch. It's by far the slowest month of the sports winter, and if you're truly addicted to sports, it's even worse because you have to listen to people try to invent news. So we're not doing that today.
It's Friday, and you've already read 100,000 stories about Jeremy Lin, and we've all been waterboarded with Peyton Manning speculation for a solid month now. Instead, let's talk about sports movies. There's no better way to pass the time during sports' hibernation season.
Everyone has a favorite sports movie. You have the classics (Field of Dreams, Hoosiers, Rudy, Bull Durham, Slap Shot), the modern-day epics (Any Given Sunday, He Got Game, Baseketball), the golf movies (Caddyshack, Tin Cup, Happy Gilmore), the college movies (Blue Chips, The Program), the movie that inexplicably made me weep in ninth grade and is awesome no matter what anyone says (The Sixth Man) and like a million more.
But nothing in the genre's quite as head-splitting and ridiculous as Sudden Death, the movie in which Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals is interrupted when the Vice President is kidnapped by an evil terrorist who threatens to blow up the Pittsburgh Penguins' stadium if he doesn't get $1.7 billion by the end of the game. And only Jean-Claude Van Damme can stop it.
It was released in 1995 and was actually written by Karen Baldwin, wife of then-Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, and IT. IS. AWESOME. As Roger Ebert wrote at the time, "If, in this season of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, it would make you feel better to see a thriller in which thousands of hockey fans almost get blown up, hostages are killed and a guy in a penguin suit gets a one-way trip through an industrial-strength dishwasher, then 'Sudden Death' is your movie."
Correction, Roger: That was a woman who went through the industrial-strength dishwasher in the Penguin mascot costume. She was a professionally hired hitwoman who'd coldly dispatched of the original mascot, then killed a popcorn vendor for some reason before she kidnapped Van Damme's daughter and tried to take out Van Damme, himself.
Luckily, there was that dishwasher there.
So yeah, Sudden Death falls smack in the middle of the golden age for gratuitous, borderline offensive action movies that you should never, ever take your kids to. I saw it with my brother, somehow, and like most sports fans from the '90s I'll always have fond memories. It's like the NHL 94 of action movies. Which is to say, it'll never be matched, and that makes it even better 17 years later.
Here's a rundown of some highlights.
Darren McCord (Van Damme): Fire marshal/one man wrecking crew
Joshua Doss (Powers Boothe): Disgruntled government cast-off/Terrorist
Matthew Holbrook (Dorian Harewood): Secret Service Head Honcho
Vice President (Raymond J. Barry): (From Justified, Training Day, and a million other movies)
McCord's son: Around 12 years old, firmly in the "Shut up Dad" phase
McCord's daughter: Around 8 years old, firmly in the "My daddy's a HERO" phase
Like a thousand evil henchmen: Most of whom look like they just got out of rehab
The movie begins with McCord (Van Damme) fighting a fire where he fails to save a little girl. Fast forward a few years, and McCord's divorced and pulling civilian fireman duties -- he works Penguin games. Soon, we see him picking up his kids for a surprise present. Annnd ... you guessed it! He's got tickets to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
They get to the game a few hours early so that Darren can help out with the game prep while his kids watch (i.e. screw in light bulbs because their dad is sooooo lame). But he also takes them into the locker room where they meet... Luc Robitaille! And Darren, who speaks French Canadian all of a sudden, asks him in French what's gonna happen in Game 7.
When this movie first came out, this scene was my favorite because, "OMG that's Luc Robitaille! That's really him!" but, also, because there was cursing, which made it seem like an accurate portrayal of how sports locker rooms REALLY are. Fifteen years later, it's sorta hard to believe a fire marshal could bring his kid through the Penguins locker room an hour before the biggest game of their lives, but who cares. Robitaille and his mullet needed a close-up.
Then it's game time.
ANNOUNCER #1: "This place is going crazy, you know you couldn't beg, borrow or steal a ticket before this game." ANNOUNCER #2: "I don't care if you were packin' heat! You couldn't get in here."
LITTLE DO THEY KNOW.
The announcers also note that Eddie Belfour starts in goal for Chicago, which makes me feel old and young again at the same time. Remember Eddie The Eagle? A key member of any All-Star team made up of random athletes from the '90s. Him and Chris Chelios.
The announcers are actually the real Penguins' announcers (Mike Lange and Paul Steigerwald) and provide outstanding commentary throughout the game, just to remind everybody we're at a hockey game. After the first goal, for instance: "Get in the fast lane grandma, the bingo game is ready to roll!" If hockey was all announcer catch phrases and gun fights, it would be the best sport on earth.
Anyway, for the sake of brevity, we'll fast forward to when things get REALLY crazy. After the hitwoman mascot kidnaps Van Damme's daughter and takes her to the Vice President's box, he realizes that the Stanley Cup isn't the only thing on the line tonight. IT'S ALSO HIS DAUGHTER'S LIFE. And the Vice President's. And everyone at the stadium, since he eventually realizes that the entire stadium is wired with C-4, placed in strategic locations all over the concourse.
"They've turned this whole place into one big bomb, don't you understand?" Van Damme tells Agent Harewood, the secret service fella in charge. And he adds: "I'll find the bombs myself." Around this time is when we realize that the terrorists have a goon on the roof of the stadium, ready to shoot down any police helicopters with a rocket launcher.
Later, after the Secret Service head turns out to be a traitor who's been working with the terrorists all along, Van Damme uses his son's Super Soaker (filled with lighter fluid) to burn him alive, the sort of thing that would just never happen anymore, except maybe in Mark Wahlberg movies. But more importantly, my God, that's the most '90s death sequence OF ALL TIME.
The only thing better would be choking him to death with a Nerf Hoop.
With the secret service agent out of the way, Van Damme can go back to disarming bombs. Enter the announcers, late in the second period: "This place is ready to explode!"
[Cut to Van Damme disarming C4]
This movie is the best. THE BEST. And we haven't even gotten to the greatest sequence in the history of Sports Action Movies. It's not enough for Van Damme to just be at a hockey game while all this is happening. There's only way this can really get taken to the next level.
So late in the third period, the Pittsburgh goalie — who's been battling the flu all day — throws in the towel and heads to the locker room. Next thing you know Van Damme is evading evil henchmen and ducks into the Penguins locker room, annnnnd ... BOOM. Suddenly he's suited up in full goalie's uniform, when his coach tells him, "Get the f*** in there!"
As he skates over to the pipes, one of the announcers says, "You wonder if he can make the big save to keep the Penguins within striking distance." SPOILER ALERT.
Of course he dives sideways for game-saving stop on a breakaway. It's perfect example of a movie not being afraid to really go for it, even if going for it means nobody will ever, ever take your movie seriously. Still: If you're gonna set an action movie at a hockey game, you might as well have your hero suit up for a few minutes and make a ridiculous, game-saving play.
After his shining moment, Van Damme signals to his son in the stands to let him know that his dad doesn't just change light bulbs. Then he punches out a Blackhawks player to get himself kicked out of the game and back to saving the entire stadium, the Vice President and his daughter.
From there it's back to the locker room, and here's one scene where the movie misses an opportunity. If you think about what's in a hockey locker room, it's sort of the perfect place for a prolonged action sequence. There's sharp skates everywhere, 20 or 30 stools to break over someone's back, sticks for an impromptu sword fight, those blow torches they use on the sticks, not to mention hundreds of needles reserved for cortisone. Sadly, Van Damme quickly dispatches one of the goons with a skate sharpener, and then moves on to a gun fight in the weight room.
Pretty great, but could've been greater.
We won't spoil the rest — there are at least 10 other fantastic battles and one memorable sequence involving a helicopter and a retractable roof. But yeah, let's just say that Robitaille buys Van Damme a little extra time when he sends the game to — wait for it — SUDDEN DEATH.
So anyway, if you're looking for a way to pass the time in the next few weeks, go find a copy of Sudden Death. Order it online here. It's criminally underrated as both a ridiculous action movie AND a hilarious sports movie, so you won't be disappointed. Think of it like Snakes On A Plane before those movies were ironic and self-aware, and with hockey and bombs instead of snakes.
What more could you want from a Game 7?