In every previous month of this column, I’ve invariably started with a movie I wanted to watch and then searched for a thematically appropriate beer to pair with it. This month is the inverse.
As I prepared for a move to the Atlanta area to join the Paste staff full-time, thinning out my fridge contents became a necessity. Packed to the gills with craft beer, my friends were all too happy to help me eliminate 22 oz and 750 ml bottles until only one or two remained that I could conceivably pair with a film. I was left looking at a bottle I’d been saving for a while—a 2013 bomber of Boulder Beer Co.’s Killer Penguin Barleywine. But what does one pair with a beer named “Killer Penguin”?
If you said “something with Jean-Claude Van Damme,” then you’re even better at this than I am. When my research first turned up 1995’s Sudden Death, I didn’t really grasp the connection. Is it just because Van Damme plays a fire marshal in the Pittsburgh Penguins arena? That would be a pretty tenuous connection. But never fear, because the penguin motif pays off big time.
The simplest way of describing Sudden Death is to say “It’s Die Hard in a hockey arena,” because that’s what it is, practically note for note. Van Damme is of course the film’s John McClane, your typical, garden-variety Pittsburgh resident with an inexplicable Belgian accent, playing a disgraced firefighter instead of a police officer. All the other important elements are there: Trapped inside a sealed building; terrorists take over and hold hostages; black cop (FBI agent) is the hero’s voice from the outside over the radio; hero races against time to find and disarm bombs. The entire concept displays an almost admirable contempt for the audience’s ability to remember that this is something they’ve seen rehashed over and over. It sits the viewer down and says “Look, Die Hard was seven years ago, and even though it’s had two of its own sequels since, we think you’ll like our take on it—it has kickboxing, sort of!”
The actual plot is inane and makes little sense, even compared with the film it’s ripping off. The terrorist leader takes the visiting vice president of the United States hostage and demands the release of frozen bank assets that total into the billions. His plan involves blowing up the hockey arena at the end of the game and somehow escaping via helicopter in the chaos, but none of this matters. What matters is KICKBOXING ON PENGUIN ACTION.
I refer to the reason for this pairing, and it’s one of the great, unsung action sequences in bad movie history. His daughter missing and in the clutches of the villains, our Belgian fire chief runs afoul of a potentially deadly adversary—a female assassin disguised as Penguins mascot Iceburgh. In a full-body mascot suit.
What follows is nothing short of amazing, an all-out kitchen brawl that sends hero and evil penguin woman careening off freezers, catering carts and strategically placed conveyor belts as they struggle for dominance atop the food chain. It plays out like the final exam of someone’s collegiate stage-fighting class, as both combatants attempt to use every single dangerous object one might find in a kitchen as a weapon until the scene transforms itself into a permutation of self-parody. Within a two-minute period, the following objects are used as weapons—an electric meat slicer, a steaming grill, a cleaver, a deep fryer, a ventilation fan, a meat tenderizer, a bottle of red pepper flakes and an industrial dishwasher. In two minutes. And then Van Damme allows the woman to die, shrugs his shoulders and leaves.
The liquid version of Killer Penguin, meanwhile, conveys depths of nuance that the film is sorely lacking. This American barleywine has been aged for about eight full months since its release, allowing its alcoholic heat to mellow a bit, even though it remains a warming mouthful at 10% ABV. Dried fruit flavors come through in a huge way, from raisin and prune to something that reminds me of the spiced buzz of cherry cola. It’s a burly, syrupy and rich brew even within its style guidelines, easy on the hop bitterness and instead throwing itself entirely into the realm of burnt sugar, toffee and fruit. It’s like something a Dickensian gentleman would drink in a tiny cordial glass as a digestif, presumably while watching something a bit classier than Sudden Death.
As for the film, the action culminates on the roof of the arena, where Jean-Claude McClane battles Powers “Gruberesque” Boothe high above the hockey game, which is still in progress. It’s still in progress because Van Damme (a former goalie) actually disguises himself to enter the game at one point and make a critical save, preserving the score as the game heads into “sudden death” overtime. This is exactly as jarring a tonal shift as you might expect, as the film essentially becomes a sports movie for about three minutes. Also wonderful—his own teammates are completely unable to recognize that the goalie is an impostor, while nameless henchmen who have never seen Van Damme before can spot him from across the arena. Alright, sure, whatever.
Despite it all, though, Sudden Death remains watchable in that cheesy, easily digestible way so common of interchangeable ’80s and ’90s action flicks. All these films needed to appease their target demographic were a few fun fight scenes and a handful of big, fiery explosions, and this one fulfills those requirements in spades. It certainly won’t appear on anyone’s list of action classics from its era, but the penguin fight scene alone elevates Sudden Death to a weirdly memorable level. It’s easy to swallow and inoffensive, which makes the complexities of Boulder Beer Co.’s Killer Penguin stand out all the more sharply in comparison. Of the two, the beer is certainly more thoughtful, but not necessarily more enjoyable. As it turns out, I may prefer my killer penguins with murder in their beady eyes, gripping a meat tenderizer.
Ready to relive your favorite Die Hard bits alongside JCVD? Check out the Sudden Death trailer:
Prefer your flightless bird exposure to result in a pleasant buzz? Keep an eye out for this winter’s batch of Boulder Beer Co. Killer Penguin.