I am a Michael Jai White fan. Two movies cemented my status as one – “Undisputed II: Last Man Standing” (arguably the greatest straight-to-DVD flick of all-time) and “Black Dynamite.” Much of White’s output isn’t up to snuff with his talent – in spite of this I always tune into his stuff so long as he’s punching and kicking people … just save the Tyler Perry melodrama for your Mama!
This brings us to “Welcome to Sudden Death,” now available on DVD, VOD and for streaming on Netflix, a sequel to the Jean-Claude Van Damme “Die Hard” in a hockey arena vehicle from 25 years ago. The movie is the latest product from Universal 1440 Entertainment – the production arm of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. These are the folks who unleash “Tremors” installments upon us seemingly every year (“Tremors: Shrieker Island” drops Oct. 20, 2020!), “Jarhead” follow-ups that have fuck-all to do with the original movie (but my boi Scott Adkins was in #3!) and a “Backdraft” sequel 28 years after its predecessor that I wouldn’t cross the street to piss on if it were on fire. Despite their spotty track record, I must say “Welcome to Sudden Death” is a pleasant surprise. It’s better than Adkins’ “Hard Target 2,” but that ain’t an especially high hurdle. This new “Sudden Death” is an objectively bad movie, but it’s an entertainingly bad movie.
White stars as Jesse, a Special Forces veteran who’s reintegrating to life back home with his family. He wants to contribute, so he takes on a job working security for the Phoenix Falcons of the National Basketball League. He decides to take his kids Mara (Nakai Takawira) and Ryan (Lyric Justice) to the season opener. Unfortunately for them, a group of pissed off Geek Squad members with an axe to grind known as Alpha rig the arena with explosives at all of the exits. They’ve also taken hostages in the executive suite – the Governor (Paul Essiembre), the Mayor (Kristen Harris), a billionaire businesswoman named Diana (Sabryn Rock) and her rapper boyfriend, Milli (Anthony Grant). Leading Alpha is Jobe (Michael Eklund, who comes across like a bargain basement Craig Sheffer … then again Craig Sheffer himself is kinda bargain basement Craig Sheffer). Assisting Jesse in thwarting these terrorists is the facility’s custodian, Gus (comedian Gary Owen).
“Welcome to Sudden Death” is less a sequel to “Sudden Death” than it is a remake that substitutes hockey for hoops with a darker complexion, smaller budget and more humor. It’s directed and co-written by Dallas Jackson. The original film’s writer Gene Quintano is credited as well. I’m not sure if he wrote on the picture or if he’s given a nod since the filmmakers straight-up aped his original work?
There’s a lot to like here – White can still fight – a locker room-based skirmish between he and Marrese Crump (next set to appear opposite Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo and Tony Jaa in “Jiu Jitsu”) is a showstopper. A sequence depicting Alpha making guns with 3D printers is cool and calls to mind John Malkovich’s shenanigans from “In the Line of Fire.” Owen can’t act, but he’s insanely likable and often very funny. Takawira isn’t anywhere near the best child actor I’ve ever seen, but she’s cute as a button, sassy as shit and can deliver one-liners like nobody’s business. Eklund has a certain presence to him as the primary baddie, but he’s no Powers Boothe. Then again, who is?
As fun as this all is, don’t get it twisted – “Welcome to Sudden Death” is dumb as a doornail. This is a movie involving basketball referencing a phenomenon that doesn’t exist in the game for the sake of name notoriety. The filmmakers should’ve just called this scrappy, crappy action flick “Overtime.” If you want another riff on “Sudden Death,” Dave Bautista’s soccer-themed “Final Score” from a coupla years back easily bests this beater.