The film was a box office disappointment in the United States, grossing less than $20.4 million at the box office on a $35 million budget. However, the film was a huge success internationally, particularly in Australia, Philippines, Germany, and the United Kingdom, making $68 million worldwide. In other countries, it made close to $50 million in profit with video sales. It received mixed to negative reviews at the time of its release, although retrospective reviews have been more positive and it is seen by many as one of Van Damme's best.
Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a French Canadian-born firefighter with the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau who suffered a personal crisis after he was unable to save a young girl from a house fire. Now removed from active duty, Darren has become demoted to being fire marshal for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena.
While attending Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks with his daughter Emily (Whittni Wright) and his son Tyler (Ross Malinger), he discovers a crime operation occurring in the arena. Soon a gang of terrorists led by former US government employee and fired CIA operative Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe) is holding U.S. Vice President Daniel Binder (Raymond J. Barry) and several other VIPs hostage in a luxury suite.
Foss has the arena wired with explosives, and plans to blow it up at the end of the game while having hundreds of millions of dollars wired into several off shore accounts. Darren must not just stop Foss, but somehow send the game into overtime and rescue both his son and daughter simultaneously.
Darren is pulled into the plot when Emily is kidnapped by Carla, the sole female member of the terrorists dressed as the mascot Iceburgh. Carla places Emily in the suite with the other hostages about to be executed. Darren heads up to the executive offices and finds a mobile phone, with which he gets in touch with Secret Service Agent Matthew Hallmark (Dorian Harewood), who advises Darren to stand by while the agents take charge. He angrily refuses, saying that he will handle this himself.
The Secret Service and the Pittsburgh Police team up to surround the arena and a standoff ensues. Meanwhile, Darren manages to find a few of the bombs and disarm them, whilst Foss goes about killing several hostages after the 2nd period ends. Agent Hallmark finally makes his way inside and meets with Darren, who explains where the rest of the bombs are most likely located. It is then revealed that Hallmark is in league with Foss, and tries to kidnap Tyler, but fails. Hallmark then reveals his true self to Darren, and Darren burns him alive. Darren then uses Hallmark's phone to contact Foss, who taunts him with the news that he is holding his daughter captive.
As time quickly ticks down, Darren manages to disable more bombs, but is severely slowed by confrontations with Foss's men. At one point, the fire marshal must pretend to be the Pittsburgh goalie to escape the thugs and ends up successfully defending a shot. The third period runs down, and with the Penguins down by one goal, Luc Robitaille scores the equalizer in the last second, bringing the game to sudden death and prolonging the game, but only until the next goal is scored. Darren decides that there's no time left to find the remaining bombs and climbs up to the roof of the Civic Arena. He advances upon the owner's box from above and forces his way in, rescuing Emily and the remaining hostages.
Meanwhile, Foss manages to escape and blend in with the chaos that has ensued by one of Foss's henchmen falling from the roof through the score display and blowing it up. Foss sets off one of the bombs, flooding part of the arena, and recaptures Emily when she recognizes him. They head up towards the top of the arena, where a helicopter is waiting to lift Foss away. Darren intervenes and saves his daughter. Foss flees, and a wounded Darren shoots the pilot through the floor and a screaming Foss is killed as the chopper falls into the arena and explodes on impact with the ice.
Darren is led to a waiting ambulance while and his son and daughter comment to the paramedics about how their father is a hero. A contented Darren is put inside the ambulance as the film ends.Jean-Claude Van Damme as Darren Francis Thomas McCord, a former Pittsburgh firefighter who has been demoted to working as both a fire marshal, and security guard in the Pittsburgh Civic Arena
Powers Boothe as Joshua Foss, a terminated CIA officer and mastermind of the terrorists
Raymond J. Barry as U.S. Vice President Daniel Binder
Whittni Wright as Emily McCord, Darren's daughter
Ross Malinger as Tyler McCord, Darren's son
Dorian Harewood as Matthew Hallmark, a Secret Service agent in charge of the Vice-President's protection detail; later revealed to be Foss' partner
Kate McNeil as Kathi
Michael Gaston as Hickey, Foss's computer hacker
Audra Lindley as Mrs. Ferrara
Brian Delate as Blair
Faith Minton as Carla, Foss's only henchwoman
Jophery Brown as Wootton, Foss's henchman
Manny Perry as Brody, Foss's henchman
Brian Hutchison as Young Secret Service Agent
Jay Caufield as Brad Tolliver
Bill Clement as Pre-game announcer
Cleveland Lumberjacks players as Chicago Blackhawks players
Ian Moran as Chris Chelios
Jeff Jimerson as Himself (credited "Anthem Singer")
Mike Lange as Himself (credited "Play-by-Play Announcer")
Mario Lemieux as Himself
Luc Robitaille as Himself
Paul Steigerwald as Himself (credited "Color Commentator")
Markus Näslund as Himself (uncredited)
Bernie Nicholls as Himself (uncredited)
Ken Wregget as Himself (uncredited)
John Barbero as PA Announcer (uncredited)
Mark Kachowski as Himself
Howard Baldwin, chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was one of the film's backers. He had a two-year deal with Universal. Baldwin wanted to use footage from the October 1 game opener between Pittsburgh and Chicago, but the game was delayed due to a lockout. He arranged an exhibition game, but the players from Pittsburgh and Chicago apparently did not display the correct intensity. So they arranged another game involving players from the Johnstown Chiefs and Wheeling Thunderbirds of the East Hockey League. Crowd shots were done over one night using between 2,000 and 3,000 extras, plus cardboard cut outs to make the stadium seem like 17,000.
Sudden Death was filmed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it is set, and Middletown, New York, in 98 days between August 29 and December 7, 1994. Parts were filmed at the then-unopened Veterans Hospital in Aspinwall, PA.
The final helicopter crash was filmed with a 400 ft crane that could pick up and lower the helicopter into the arena. Nine cameras recorded the event, which was filmed several times, and hundreds of emergency vehicles were on standby in case of an accident.
The movie received a mixed reaction. Sudden Death currently holds a 52 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, some consider Sudden Death one of Van Damme's best films to date (alongside Hard Target and Timecop). Critic Roger Ebert stated that "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."
Sudden Death opened in the United States on the weekend of December 22, 1995, in eighth place, making $4,782,445 at 1681 theatres, with a poor $2,845 per screen average, and a $20,350,171 final tally. Internationally it fared better, with a worldwide gross of nearly $64 million. In other countries, it made close to 50 million in profit with video sales.
The novelization of the film was written by American writer Stephen Mertz. The audio book is read by Powers Boothe.
A surprisingly detailed synopsis of the movie is sung by Andy Dwyer in a deleted scene from Parks and Recreation.