Freeheld stumbles over too many hurdles to recommend it. The film’s heart is in the right place, but its focus is not.
One of the movie magazines ran a spread recently about all of the "Die Hard" clones. The formula is familiar: Blackmailing terrorists gain control of a high-rise, or let's say, a sports arena, and threaten to destroy it unless megabucks are transferred to their account. One brave man finds out about the plan, and works as a lone wolf to stop them. (The ads almost always end with the dramatic line, ". . . but they didn't count on - one man!") There are a lot of special effects, many fights and chases, and a sensational climax.
Finally it all comes down to a one-on-one between the hero and the villain, preferably employing the Climbing Villain Syndrome, in which the bad guy climbs to escape, which doesn't make a lot of sense unless he knows that the movie has to end with his spectacular fall. "Sudden Death" follows this "Die Hard" formula faithfully, with the intriguing switch that it is the hero who speaks with an accent.
(Belgian-born Jean-Claude Van Damme deserves credit for transforming himself into an action star and improving his English, but it's premature to give his characters WASP names like Darren McCord.) In the movie's prologue, he's a hero fireman who fails to save a little girl's life. This crushes McCord and leads to his resignation and divorce. As we pick up the story a couple of years later, he's a security guard in a Pittsburgh sports arena where the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins are about to play a hockey match.
The vice president of the United States will be attending the game. An unshaven blackmailer named Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe) plans to invade the VIP suite, hold the vice president hostage, and demand payment of tons of money. His demands also include peace on Earth and the eradication of mini-malls. This is not a guy without things on his mind.
McCord attends the game with his two small children, Emily (Whittni Wright) and Tyler (Ross Malinger). Of course, it's only a matter of time until one of them is in the villain's clutches. The stadium has been rigged with bombs, and it's McCord's task to disarm them, while engaging in fierce martial arts battles with Foss and his men, and trying to save his child.
There is a time limit: so many dollars must be deposited in Foss' accounts at the end of every period of the match, or hostages in the VIP booth will be shot. The payoff (as the title hints) is that the match goes into a sudden-death overtime, allowing McCord precious extra minutes to save thousands of lives. Why the timing of the explosion would be delayed by the overtime is not explained, but never mind: The movie also fails to explain how no one finds it suspicious that the vice president is never seen watching the game, although it is a well-known fact that politicians attend games primarily to be seen.
Of course, "Sudden Death" isn't about common sense. It's about the manipulation of action and special-effects sequences to create a thriller effect, and at that it's pretty good. The movie has been directed and photographed by Peter Hyams ("Running Scared," "Narrow Margin" and the Van Damme movie "Timecop"). He's a skilled craftsman, as you can see during a martial arts scene in the arena's kitchens. The cooks have all been ordered to leave, and McCord gets into a fight with one of the bad guys, who is disguised inside a Penguin mascot uniform. They methodically use every prop in sight: the French fry machine, the hot grill, the meat slicer, the exhaust fan, a jar of hot peppers, the industrial dishwasher, even a bone, which winds up stuck through a guy's neck. A few more minutes and they would have been gouging out eyes with garlic presses, and shoving toes into Cuisinarts.
Perhaps the world does not require more than a dozen or so "Die Hard" clones. You tell me. 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.
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Our monthly series digs into the career of Wes Craven and comes out with his 3D 2010 film, "My Soul to Take".
A comparison of Frank Costello in The Departed and Whitey Bulger in Black Mass reveals weaknesses in the latter.
A letter to Angelina Jolie about the casting of her upcoming take on "Cleopatra."