25 years ago today, John McTiernan‘s “Die Hard” exploded in wide release onto screens nationwide and forever changed the landscape of action cinema. This wasn’t just a box office smash, it was a genuine game-changer, one that made a star out of Bruce Willis and created its very own sub-genre. It’s easy to forget now, after countless neutered airings on broadcast television and sequels that have all but turned the once-beloved brand into anonymous slush, just how profoundly “Die Hard” impacted movies back then.
Coming at the tail end of a decade of Sylvester Stallone/Chuck Norris/Arnold Schwarzenegger tough guy movies, where they shot first, asked questions later and didn’t flinch in the eye of danger, “Die Hard” was something different. John McClane was regular everyday cop, just trying to be a good husband, a sensitive dude given to crying when the situation called for it and certainly not an indestructible hero by any stretch. The character was considered so fragile, many A-list names turned down the part, leading to “Moonlighting” star Bruce Willis getting the gig. (He was far from the major name action brand he is today.) The result? An electric action movie with a surprising heart that took the box office by storm.
Countless projects in the wake of “Die Hard” would be described in pitch meetings (and eventually, critical evaluations) as “Die Hard” on a… Some of these movies would embrace their trappings and create unique entertainments all their own, while others would falter trying to live up to the original film’s greatness. Hell, we’re still feeling the effects of “Die Hard” today in countless action movies that try to recapture the feeling, look, mood or tone of the iconic action spectacular. Many have tried but few have succeeded in becoming the “next” “Die Hard,” whose formula is pretty simple: weary everyman must risk his life to save the world/his family/America from bad guys located in a building/ship/bus/plane/random single location. Seems almost too easy, but it’s a template that’s proven effective time and time again. (Though the “Die Hard” sequels have managed to mess that up by making John McClane pretty much invincible.)
So, join us as we run down ten of the most notable son-of-“Die Hard” movies on its 25th anniversary and see how they stack up against the modern king of action blockbusters. Do any of these movies walk in broken glass alongside John McClane?
“The Raid: Redemption” (2012)
Plot: A highly lethal SWAT team enters a dilapidated apartment building that’s being controlled by a vicious gangster. Or: “Die Hard” in Indonesia.
Level Of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: Pretty high. Not only does it borrow the patented single-location, lots-of-bad-guys-in-a-building framework, but it also features a charismatic (but still scary) lead villain in Tama (Ray Sahetapy), introduced early in the film as a man who knows his way around a hammer, who makes a harder-edged parallel to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in “Die Hard.” “The Raid: Redemption” also borrows the darkly tinged sense of humor in “Die Hard,” and director Gareth Evans attempts to replicate McTiernan’s clear-cut use of space, so that the audience, no matter how frantic the camerawork becomes, is never disoriented. Additionally, most of the characters are defined and developed wordlessly through action, not dialogue, which has always been one of McTiernan’s strengths as a filmmaker. While doing press for “The Raid: Redemption,” Evans frequently brought up “Die Hard” (along with John Carpenter‘s “Assault on Precinct 13” and Romain Gavras‘ video for the M.I.A. song “Born Free“) as one of his chief influences. He didn’t need to say anything; it’s all up there on the screen.
How It Compares: Pretty well, actually. The explicit “Die Hard” references add to the movie’s overall, ’80s video game-style fun, with the team eventually whittled down to a handful of characters and the intensity never ceasing. It’s the rare homage that feels like it’s doing the original proud.
Plot: A mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) plants a bomb on a Los Angeles area bus. If the bus goes below 50 miles per hour, the bomb detonates, killing every culturally diverse passenger on the bus. It’s up to one SWAT team hotshot (Keanu Reeves) and a plucky hostage (Sandra Bullock) to stop his evil plan. Or: “Die Hard” on a bus.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: Initially, “Speed” feels like one of the more direct lifts, partially because it starts off with a madman holding hostages in a glassy office building in Los Angeles. Once the film shifts to the bus, though, things become slightly more original, with elements of a police procedural (with Jeff Daniels‘ character charting the background of the bomber) and romantic comedy (Reeves and Bullock had so much chemistry they made the straight-up romance “The Lake House” together years later) eventually being woven into the main plot. The derivativeness may have also been stripped away when Joss Whedon was brought on to do extensive rewrites on the screenplay, something that is widely forgotten about today (although at least one round of crediting shuffles had him listed as a co-writer). Hopper is a good enough surrogate for Alan Rickman and like the interaction between Rickman and Bruce Willis, much of the banter in “Speed” is played out with the characters in completely separate locations. It also maintains the liveliness and sense of fun present in “Die Hard,” and while “Speed” tries desperately to maintain the claustrophobic single location moodiness of “Die Hard,” it eventually opens up, first to the airport and then to an underground train. It should also be noted that “Speed” was the first directorial effort from cinematographer Jan De Bont, who also shot some movie called “Die Hard.”
How It Compares: Favorably. “Speed” is undoubtedly one of the better post-“Die Hard” ’90s action movies, sharing its wonderful sense of pacing and genuinely beautiful cinematography. Unlike many of the more crass “Die Hard” rip-offs, “Speed” isn’t still locked in some nineties-era time capsule; it still thrills today.
Plot: A gang of thieves (led by a scenery-chewing John Lithgow) arrive on a mountain looking to recover $100 million in uncirculated $1,000 bills, located in a briefcase that was lost somewhere in the mountain range following an airplane crash. A lone mountain climber and rescue ranger (Sylvester Stallone) has to stop them, especially because Lithgow has some of his buddies held hostage. Or: “Die Hard” on a mountain.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: Unexpectedly high, mostly because the movie makes the oh-so-wise decision of having the terrorists not actually be terrorists but rather thieves (one of the strokes of genius of the original “Die Hard”). Lithgow even tries for a haughty British accent in the style of Hans Gruber, even though he’s supposed to be a former Military Intelligence officer, that gives him a perfumed air of sophistication but also doesn’t distinguish him all that much from the psychos Lithgow frequently played in Brian De Palma movies. The main thing that takes away from its “Die Hard”-y-ness is its commitment to extreme, borderline sadistic violence that has always been a specialty of director Renny Harlin, who brought the same bleakly nihilistic intensity to “Die Hard 2: Die Harder.” (Harlin even recycles some of the same snowy-gory gags from that sequel for “Cliffhanger.”) Stallone’s character often plays like an outdoorsman version of Willis’ John McClane, and it’s fun to swap out things from the original “Die Hard” for their mountainous counterpart (for instance: Willis shot a guy from underneath a table, Stallone from underneath a thin layer of ice).
How It Compares: It really doesn’t. “Die Hard” is a classy piece of finely crafted, artistically sound entertainment. “Cliffhanger” is the type of movie that you might pause on for fifteen minutes if it’s on basic cable and you’re waiting for your tea to boil. In short: “Cliffhanger” is crass, ultra-violent, and lacking in any kind of subtlety, in either its narrative or characterization. That said: it’s still kind of works as a large slice of cheesy fun.
Plot: Based on a cult British comic book, a couple of futuristic law enforcers (Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby) are trapped in a monolithic housing project with some very bad dudes (led by one very bad chick, played by Lena Headey). Or: “Die Hard” in the future.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: While it’s easy to dismiss comparisons between the two, they have been intertwined since the very beginning, especially since the original “Judge Dredd” comic book (initially housed in the pages of “2000 A.D.“) was developed, in part, as a satire of American action movies like “Die Hard.” The fact that there had been one adaptation of the property before (1995’s forgettable “Judge Dredd“) that didn’t utilize a claustrophobic single location, battery of villainous outlaws, and emphasis on the innocent hostages caught in between, further underlines the connection between “Dredd” and “Die Hard.” They also share an emphasis on spatial geography and beautiful, sustained imagery, made all the more dreamlike by the 3D photography and mind-blowing slow motion effects, meant to simulate a futuristic drug that distills time. It turns what could have been a typical shootout into a bloody bullet-time ballet, of which McTiernan would approve. The fact that both “Dredd” and “The Raid: Redemption,” which featured similar set-ups and a healthy fascination with “Die Hard,” were released in the same year is both an eerie coincidence and a testament to the long-range power of that original film.
How It Compares: Favorably. While “Dredd” lacks the elegance of the original “Die Hard,” along with a swanky villain (Headey is a former-prostitute-turned-warlord), it still plays like the awesome, down-and-dirty late night homage. It also makes for a killer double feature with “The Raid: Redemption,” for obvious reasons.
“Air Force One” (1997)
Plot: A bunch of gun-wielding political extremists, led by Gary Oldman, infiltrate the president’s plane, Air Force One, taking hostages and demanding the release of a villainous dictator of a regime in Kazakhstan. But the president (Harrison Ford) won’t go down so easily. Or: “Die Hard” on Air Force One.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: This is one of those “Die Hard”-in-pitch-only deals, where its resemblance to “Die Hard” fades the closer you look at it. Yes, it features a bunch of guys with guns taking over something and yes, Harrison Ford is a lone hero out to thwart a bearded baddie before said baddie kills everyone (he has to shimmy through tight spaces just like Bruce, too!), but that’s more or less where the similarities begin and end. “Air Force One” is a far more traditional action movie than “Die Hard,” with the events on the plane inter-cut with a lot of boring squawking by the Vice President (Glenn Close) and various old white guy members of the president’s cabinet. That isn’t to say there aren’t some spectacular action sequences, because there are; there’s one particularly memorable set piece during a mid-air refueling, where you can feel the flames lick your forehead. And while this was directed by “Das Boot” auteur Wolfgang Peterson, as far as sustained tension goes, it comes up short, mostly due to its more conservative framework.
How It Compares: Not all that well. There are a number of things that “Air Force One,” almost a decade later, couldn’t do as well as “Die Hard.” Oldman’s villain might be deliciously over-the-top, but he’s not all that memorable. Even his facial hair pales in comparison to Rickman’s, and the then-cutting-edge visual effects, particularly when it comes to the plane crashing into the water at the end, look positively amateurish compared to Richard Edlund‘s optical effects in “Die Hard.” The concession can be made, though, that “Get off my plane” (growled by Ford) is the closest thing we’ve come, in pure quotable bad-assery, to “Yippe-ki-yay motherfuckers” in the years since.
“Sudden Death” (1995)
Plot: An ex-firefighter (Jean-Claude Van Damme, for some reason pretending to be Canadian) takes his two children to a Pittsburgh Penguins game on the same night the Vice President is there. Also at the game? A bunch of jack-booted thugs led by a prissy Powers Boothe, who take the Vice President (and JCVD’s daughter) hostage, along with every spectator in the arena. Or: “Die Hard” at a hockey game.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: Actually, it’s surprisingly high. “Sudden Death,” while at first glance appears to be one of the more anonymous knockoffs, is a pretty adept riff on the material. The filmmakers, chiefly director/cinematographer Peter Hyams (a chronically underrated talent in the McTiernan mold), at least understand what made “Die Hard” so special, and they attempt to faithfully replicate those elements in a thoughtful way. One of the bad guys, when asked if he’s a terrorist, quips, “I’m not a terrorist, I’m a fucking professional”; the lone man of action whose attempts are tangled by cumbersome bureaucratic nonsense from the outside (the Johnson FBI agents have been replaced by a CIA agent named Hallmark); Boothe’s upper crust villain (with more than a passing resemblance to Hans Gruber)—these are all specifics ripped out of the book of “Die Hard.” But instead of coming across like a simplistic, lazy Xerox, “Sudden Death” delivers the goods in some pretty profound ways. Hyams makes the cavernous hockey arena feel as tightly closed-in and JCVD gives one of the best performances of his unfairly overlooked career. It’s not as smart or funny as “Die Hard” and it’s way more mean-spirited (several innocent old people are brutally murdered early on), but it does the job and it does the job well.
How It Compares: While no one ever seems to talk about “Sudden Death,” it’s in fact one of the better movies to come out in the wake of “Die Hard.” The villains are thieves posing as terrorists (they’re extorting the crooked Vice President for millions, with the transfers timed to the hockey game for some reason), just like in “Die Hard,” which allows the audience to have more fun, even as their murderous rampage leaves behind more bodies than your average hockey brawl.
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
Plot: Super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his crack team must stop a philosophically minded madman from starting World War III. Or: “Die Hard” on a global scale.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: This one is sneakier, since it doesn’t explicitly ape “Die Hard” like a number of the other entries on this list. That said, director Brad Bird is a huge fan of the original, even penning a brief, brilliant essay for Rolling Stone about the movie’s continued importance and cultural relevance. “John McTiernan’s direction is an amazing piece of intricate craftsmanship,” Bird wrote effusively. “What a lot of filmmakers have trouble communicating is a sense of geography. For instance, one floor of a building under construction looks a lot like any other floor. But McTiernan put in little things, like a Playboy centerfold hung up by a construction worker. At first it seems like a visual joke, but it’s really there to identify that floor, so when Willis encounters it again, the audience knows exactly where he is. Many directors also shoot action very sloppily – they shoot up close and cut around a lot and put in all these big noises to distract you. But in ‘Die Hard,’ you know where every character is every second of the movie.” What makes this bit of Bird’s piece so telling is that it is a sideways reference to a sequence in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” one that happens to take place in a glassy high rise… just like “Die Hard.” In fact, the entire centerpiece of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” staged at the tallest building in the world, is a giant homage to “Die Hard,” complete with well-dressed villains, action happening on a number of floors, and our hero perilously dangling from an impossible height. Bird also shoots like McTiernan, with his keen eye for visual detail and spatial clarity; the jumpy, you-are-there style pioneered by Paul Greengrass in the latter two ‘Bourne‘ movies is of no interest to him. He was so indebted to John McTiernan that he devoted the movie’s most memorable action sequence to him. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.
How It Compares: Beautifully. There were many who said, upon the release of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” that it was the best action movie since “Die Hard.” We’re not so sure about that, but it is damn close. The two films are linked, for sure, as impressive feats of technical know-how and emotional storytelling. What links them, more than anything, in the humility both filmmakers effortlessly inject into the feats of heroism. Also: the really tall buildings.
“The Tower” (2012)
Plot: On Christmas Eve, a helicopter crashes into a deluxe high rise in South Korea, trapping a disparate group of characters inside. Or: “Die Hard” in South Korea.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: Even though the American DVD box proclaims it as being “Die Hard” meets “The Towering Inferno” (good one, guys), and all of the artwork, at least domestically, mimics the original “Die Hard” promotional material (which scaled back an emphasis on Bruce Willis after audiences started booing trailers that heavily featured the star, who up until that point was known for his comedic work), it’s much more of a ’70s disaster movie homage than a straight “Die Hard” rip. The first thirty minutes or so set up the various cast of characters: the recently widowed building manager with the ridiculously cute daughter, the goofy guy in the kitchen who wants to propose to his girlfriend, the lower class guy who won the lottery and is shunned by other tenants, the custodial worker who’s there to pay for her snotty son’s education, and the rookie firefighter). It’s a total disaster movie thing to do, but the movie is clearly tipping its hat to “Die Hard” in its Christmas Eve setting and the fact that the titular tower (actually two towers linked by a “sky bridge”) looks suspiciously similar to Nakatomi Plaza. Proof that the influence and reach of “Die Hard” can crossover internationally.
How It Compares: “The Tower” is a ridiculously cool movie, full of absolutely jaw-dropping action sequences, but its fractured narrative often dilutes the emotionality of the piece, and the emphasis is oftentimes less on suspense and more on giant stunts. Plus, in typical South Korean fashion, it’s all over the place tonally and some of the imagery uncomfortably mirrors 9/11, particularly when bodies are falling out of the twin towers and when they implode one of the towers at the end, sending plumes of grey smoke into the urban landscape. Quite frankly, “Die Hard” was never this grim.
“White House Down” (2013)
Plot: A group of terrorists invade the White House and hold hostages, so it’s up to one wannabe Secret Service agent (Channing Tatum) to save the President (Jamie Foxx) and the hostages (including his adorable daughter) and stop their fiendish plot (which is so unnecessarily complicated we can’t even recount it here). Or: “Die Hard” in the White House.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: This might be the “Die Hard”-iest movie on the entire list, something that has been pointed out more than once. Virtually everything about “White House Down” has been borrowed from “Die Hard,” from Tatum’s reluctant hero caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, to the computer hacker who operatically does his work while classical music booms over the soundtrack, to the terrorists unknowingly holding the hero’s family member hostage. By the time “White House Down” is over, Channing Tatum even kind of looks like Bruce Willis in the first “Die Hard,” with a blood-and-grease-streaked white tank top and grey khakis. Hell, Tatum’s character is named John Cale, which is only a couple of letters off from John McClane. The list of similarities goes on and on (the bad guys are the “Die Hard” villains in reverse, terrorists posing as thieves), and even goes beyond the original “Die Hard.” Notably, the Tatum/Foxx dynamic calls to mind “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” arguably the second-best entry in the franchise and the only other installment directed by McTiernan. At least director Roland Emmerich was very open in citing “Die Hard” as a major influence, as if nobody was going to notice.
How It Compares: Sadly, it really doesn’t. “White House Down” might have a lot of the same ingredients as “Die Hard,” but all too often it feels like a poor imitation. It’s overtly earnest and handles its humor clumsily, and as far as staging action set pieces goes, Emmerich doesn’t hold a candle to McTiernan. And this is yet another example of how new technology isn’t necessarily better technology: compare the two eerily alike sequences of helicopters approaching the terrorist-controlled building. In “Die Hard,” the effect was achieved through an uncanny combination of actual helicopters and miniature effects, and it was totally believable, whereas “White House Down” had fully computer-generated helicopters and you didn’t buy it for a fucking second.
“Under Siege” (1992)
Plot: A battleship recently tagged for decommission, gets violently taken over by a nutcase (Tommy Lee Jones) intent on stealing the ship’s nuclear missiles and auctioning them off to the highest bidder. He just didn’t count on the ship’s cook (Steven Seagal) being an ex-SEAL bad-ass of the highest order. Or: “Die Hard” on a battleship.
Level of ‘Die Hard’-y-ness: Pretty high but not off the charts. “Under Siege” borrows some of the fundamentals from “Die Hard” like how the “terrorists” here are more interested in stealing stuff than any political agenda, plus the lone man contained away from much of the action, but most of the movie is different enough to feel relatively fresh. “Under Siege” has a goofier, more overt sense of humor than “Die Hard,” which oddly doesn’t completely clash with its bursts of shocking violence. One way in which “Under Siege” is very similar to “Die Hard,” and it’s something that many of the post-“Die Hard” rip-offs never followed, is that it has a very brief flash of nudity. In the original “Die Hard,” the bad guys are interrupting a Christmas office party and break up a couple who are secreted away in an office having sex (we get to see the woman’s breasts for maybe five seconds). In “Under Siege,” the bad guys get onto the ship posing as caterers and party planners accompanying a Playboy Playmate, who is scheduled to pop out of a cake. But such are the rigors of money-making that studios now avoid nudity to secure PG-13 ratings, rather than giving teen boys momentary R-rated thrills. (But then again, that audience has the internet now.)
How It Compares: Especially in re-watching it, “Under Siege” doesn’t stack up all that well to “Die Hard.” Director Andrew Davis, who would go on to helm the Oscar-nominated “The Fugitive” before all but disappearing, doesn’t have the command of his action sequences in the same way that McTiernan does, and too much of the movie’s running time is spent on the white-guys-in-a-situation-room nonsense that bogs down so many of these types of films. Where it is almost equaled, however, is in its villain. Tommy Lee Jones’ Strannix (!) character is nothing like Hans Gruber; he’s a down-and-dirty southern dude who rocks a studded jacket, bandana, and is prone to lines like “These guys are professionals, they can handle 20 marines… and 100 cooks.” But there’s something about the electricity of Jones’ performance, the absolute attention he commands anytime he’s on screen that is just like Alan Rickman in “Die Hard.” Whenever Jones is there, you can’t take his eyes off of him. It’s a performance that doubles as an act of mesmerism. He’s the best bad guy of this type since Hans Gruber, but his death scene isn’t nearly as cool.
Of course, there were literally dozens more faux “Die Hards,” many of them direct-to-video or cable exclusive affairs (and more than a few of them we can’t report to have actually seen). Of the theatrical movies, “Daylight” (“Die Hard” in a tunnel), “Passenger 57” (“Die Hard” on a plane), “Hard Rain” (“Die Hard” during a flood), “Executive Decision” (“Die Hard” on another plane) and “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” (“Die Hard” on a train), which featured indie film world weirdo Eric Bogosian in the Hans Gruber role, are some of the more watchable. Michael Bay‘s “The Rock” (“Die Hard” on Alcatraz) is something of a classic for this kind of thing, but it’s been given enough love elsewhere. Meryl Streep even got in on the action with “The River Wild” (“Die Hard” on a river) back in the day, and there was that other White House movie this year, “Olympus Has Fallen.”
It’s unthinkable, in our post-Sandy Hook society, but there were at least two “Die Hard” in a school riffs—“Demolition High” and “Toy Soldiers,” and, along the lines of “Cliffhanger,” a pair of “Die Hard” on a mountain movies, one starring football star Howie Long (“Firestorm”) and another starring Sean Astin and Bruce Campbell (“Icebreaker”—seriously, watch the trailer right now). “No Contest” was “Die Hard” at a beauty contest (something that would be borrowed for the Sandra Bullock romantic comedy “Miss Congeniality”) and has the dubious distinction of featuring not only Shannon Tweed in the cast but an original “Die Hard” cast member—Robert Davi (who played one of the doomed FBI agents)! Then there’s the regrettable “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” which was “Die Hard” on a cruise ship (the experience was worse than getting seasick all over the lido deck).
What’s your favorite “Die Hard” rip-off? Which ones did we forget or were so far buried down the direct-to-cable rabbit hole that we couldn’t even bring them up? Let us know below.