By Matty B.
The city of Pittsburgh’s acting resume isn’t terribly long, but it is memorable. Best known for character roles, the Steel City portrays a backdrop of industrial grit to Jennifer Beals’ welder-turned-dancer in Flashdance and lays out thrilling rivers and hillsides for Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker in Striking Distance. There is one other city-set film from the era that doesn’t quite carry the same name-brand recognition and didn’t generate a “Take Bigelow!”-like catchphrase, but should exist in everyone’s short list of iconic Pittsburgh movies.
Sudden Death isn’t just “Die Hard on ice.” No, the big-budget karate and terrorists, bombs and hockey action thriller caught the city of Pittsburgh on a post-Stanley Cup high with the Penguins back-to-back victories in 1991 and ‘92. It places the old Civic Arena (aka “The Igloo”) front and center as the playing-itself real-life home of the Penguins and an unlikely target for home-grown terrorism. Despite all this, Sudden Death rarely gets mentioned as a great action movie, let alone a great Pittsburgh one. Here, on its twenty-fifth-ish anniversary, we attempt to right that wrong.
Sudden Death took Die Hard‘s guy-alone-against-terrorists action movie playbook and made it darker and French-Canadian … by-way-of the lower Hill. It was also the only “Die Hard in a [fill in the blank]” movie set in and around a sporting event. These films typically play out over the course of one day or one night, so the end is always finite. This makes the stakes that much higher.
The film also continued the trend of making the hero an unassuming, smalltime, meat-and-potatoes guy. In the opening scene, we learn that Frank McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) was once a Pittsburgh firefighter who failed to save a young girl from a wrenching blaze. Presumably, that’s why he’s been demoted to fire marshal at the Civic Arena.
One of the best shots in local movie history comes just a few minutes in. It features McCord walking to pick up his kids for Game 7 of the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. McCord, now divorced, cautiously approaches his ex-wife’s house as he sees the step-dad and his son Tyler playing street hockey. The shot only lasts for a few seconds but it features Tyler shooting the puck on steep Fritz Street in the South Side slopes. The sun is beaming down on the city in the background, a slither of which can be seen in the shot, along with the churches and redbrick buildings of the South Side, below.
This scene’s refusal to “ooo-ahh” you is what makes it stick. You can tell it’s either late spring or early fall and includes a what’s-what of Pittsburgh scenery: hilly streets, bridges, and an eclectic mix of downtown skyscrapers. Aside from a few other establishing shots, Pittsburgh’s daylight coverage vanishes as game-time approaches and night takes over. Peter Hyams, who served as both director and cinematographer, lit the film’s few moments of light with such unpretentious flair that one can’t help but revel and soak it in.
Sudden Death saves its best lines for scene-stealing villain Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe), a bitter ex-CIA officer-turned-mercenary who’s out for revenge against the country he allegedly sacrificed so much for. He too, like many other ’90s action foes, was a disgruntled, home-grown foot soldier gone rogue. Like McCord’s break with the fire department and his inexplicable Belgian-French accent, Hyams spares viewers from any pesky character development so we never actually learn what went south between Foss and the government he feels wronged by.
Most of McCord’s screen time is spent on the periphery of the action, lingering among pipes, maintenance rooms, and power generators of the Civic Arena. In a matter of hours, McCord wills himself to become a bomb-disarming expert, seeking out explosives distributed throughout the arena. Peter Hyams was shrewd enough to let “the muscles from Brussels” focus on his dexterous ability to kick ass, but McCord finds enough spare time to speak French with former Penguin and (future) Hall-of-Famer Luc Robitaille.
The action in Sudden Death comes at the viewer fast, hard, and absurdly dressed as Iceburgh, the Penguins mascot. There are preposterously over-the-top situations that call for Van Damme suiting up as goalkeeper for the Penguins, zip-lining through the arena, crashing through plate glass, deploying both deep fryer and commercial dishwasher as tools of self-defense, and finally–inevitably–up through the old Civic Arena’s retractable roof to a bazookas-and-helicopters finale that will have the explosions-and-smoke teenager in you hoisting your fists in the air.
Perhaps more implausible than some of the fight scenes is the fact that Sudden Death was conceived as a story by Karen Elise Baldwin, the daughter of then-Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, who was a producer of the film. It is wild to realize the owner of a major professional sports franchise championed a film that involves terrorists taking hostages in the middle of a Stanley Cup Final game, where the city’s mayor perishes, and his own team’s mascot is basically beheaded. The history of originally-scripted action movies by women has a short history in Hollywood but this is one hell of a film to have your name attached to.
“I was an actress and then I started writing and producing. We had the Penguins, we had access to the Civic Arena, and the building was unique in that the roof opened up,” said Ms. Baldwin in Sports Illustrated’s oral history of the film in 2015. She was right: Civic Arena was singular for its of-another-era, simple design and retractable roof. Hyams thought there was no way to pull off directing this film in the Arena until he realized the story was concocted by the owner’s daughter–then it was game on.
Likely capitalizing on JCVD’s Street Fighter prowess from the year before, Sudden Death was a modest box office success and a film whose long run of cable replays cemented its place, at worst, as a cult favorite. As if having a high-octane sport set among a brigade of bomb-setting terrorists wasn’t enough, the game does eventually head to sudden death overtime. The Jumbotron reads as such in big bold letters for several seconds. The cinematic angles Hyams captures early in the film and the circling police helicopters that swivel their way over the arena and downtown expertly set the stage for what a hockey night in Pittsburgh actually feels like. Though the game itself, in the movie, feels secondary to what takes place on the margins, casting real-life Penguins broadcasting duo Mike Lange and Paul Steigerwald as themselves was a thing of beauty. Lange’s archetypal “Scratch my back with a hacksaw” and “call Arnold Slick from Turtle Creek” catchphrases are sprinkled throughout.
I feel proud knowing that Jean-Claude Van Damme’s last great movie was made in Pittsburgh. Like the actor himself, Sudden Death has a propulsive energy and is centered around one of the things that makes Pittsburgh so special–its fanaticism for athletes in black and gold. Sudden Death, in its muscle-flexing eye-winking self-reflection, is the city’s most iconic. It’s small-time, blue collar, but full of big and brash ideas all at the same time. Even if JCVD’s accent gives off a man-from-somewhere else vibe, he stands tall, undaunted, unashamed, and ever surprising as the underdog ready to be a hero.
Matty B. is a self-described “lawyer, Alanis Morrissette enthusiast, avid card player, East End Pittsburgh native, and cinephile/writer whose work can be found at TheThirdTake.com.”