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MOVIE REVIEW : Van Damme in Top Form in 'Sudden Death'

December 22, 1995|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Sudden Death" is a treat for Jean-Claude Van Damme fans, a superior action thriller loaded with jaw-dropping stunts and special effects, and strong in production values. Expertly directed--and photographed--by Peter Hyams, it's Van Damme's biggest and best to date. It's also very violent, with a high body count, so parents need to think twice before allowing their children to see it.

Tailor-made for Van Damme, the sleek Universal release casts him as a firefighter traumatized by his failure to save a little girl in a house fire. Divorced and now working as a fire inspector, he draws marshal duty at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena, where the vice president of the United States (Raymond J. Barry), a hockey fan, will be attending the seventh game in the Stanley Cup Finals, in which the local Penguins are playing the Chicago Blackhawks.

Early in the game, to which Van Damme has taken his own youngsters (Whittni Wright and Ross Malinger), master criminal Powers Boothe, leading a large, professional team, has penetrated the owner's box and is holding the vice president hostage. His demands are simple: If $1.7 billion in frozen government funds are not transferred over to him--the scheme is intricate--he will not only assassinate Barry but also blow up the entire arena, filled with 17,000 fans.

"You'll be sorry," declares the spunky little Wright when she, too, falls into Boothe's clutches. We know that's true for sure, but Hyams and writer Gene Quintano, in adapting a story from associate producer Karen Baldwin, are consistently ingenious in generating and maintaining suspense as to how Van Damme is going to overcome so obviously formidable an adversary on such a tight deadline.

Van Damme's physical exploits are surely among his most audacious, and they are strongly motivated by his firefighter's absolute determination to succeed in his hair-raising mission. Van Damme's single-minded passion is nicely counterpointed by Boothe's sardonic mystery man, the suave, smirky type you love to hate. Wright and Malinger come across as real-life youngsters, and Dorian Harewood is solid as the lead Secret Service agent assigned to protect the vice president. "Sudden Death" provides an extra kick for hockey lovers, for it boasts considerable on-ice action and a cameo by Luc Robitaille.

* MPAA rating: R, for a substantial amount of strong violence and for language. Times guidelines: Although the film presents violence without any lingering morbidity it is sufficiently graphic and frequent to make it unsuitable for children.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Sudden Death'

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Darren

Powers Boothe: Joshua Foss

Raymond J. Barry: Vice President

Whittni Wright: Emily

Ross Malinger: Tyler

Dorian Harewood: Hallmark

A Universal release of a Signature/Baldwin Cohen production in association with Imperial Entertainment. Director-cinematographer Peter Hyams. Producers Moshe Diamant, Howard Baldwin. Executive producers Ash R. Shah, Sundip R. Shah, Anders P. Jensen, Sunil R. Shah. Screenplay by Gene Quintano; based on a story by associate producer Karen Baldwin. Editor Steven Kemper. Costumes Dan Lester. Music John Debney. Production designer Philip Harrison. Art director William Barclay. Caryl Heller. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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