Break out your blood-smeared undershirt and go crawl around in an air duct: this month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Die Hard, John McTiernan’s seminal action movie that made Bruce Willis a star, Alan Rickman a go-to villain, and the simple formula of a lone hero, a contained location, and a brilliant supervillian into one of Hollywood’s most durable. And though Fox paid its own dubious tribute to the franchise with its most recent sequel, the true testament to the film’s influence is the sheer volume of Die Hard imitators unleashed in the quarter-century since its release.
Film: Die Hard 2: Die Harder Year: 1990 “It’s like Die Hard in an…”: Airport
The first Die Hard knockoff of note was the official one. Renny Harlin’s sequel, released two years after the original, was based on unrelated source material (Walter Wager’s novel 58 Minutes), but the hallmarks were all in place: Bruce Willis’s John McClane single-handedly foiling a yuletide terrorist plot that’s put his wife in jeopardy, this time at Dulles International Airport. The subsequent sequels abandoned the bottled locations of the first two films, and to their detriment; this remains the second-best of the series.
Film: Toy Soldiers Year: 1991 “It’s like Die Hard at a…”: Boarding school
Daniel Petrie Jr.’s sleeper hit was a strange collision of Die Hard and Dead Poets Society, in which hostages are taken at a rich kids’ boarding school and a group of rebellious students (led by junior McClane Sean Astin, who we’ll see more of on this list) fight back and manage to do what the dopey, grown-up authorities can’t.
Film: Under Siege Year: 1992 “It’s like Die Hard on a…”: Navy battleship
Steven Seagal achieved his biggest critical and commercial success with this ’92 hit, in which his Navy SEAL-turned-chef (and his Playboy bunny sidekick) are the only ones who can stop a nefarious missile-theft plot hatched by Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey — who, believe it or not, once commanded equal billing. Tightly orchestrated by Andrew Davis (who would later direct Jones to an Oscar in The Fugitive) and breathlessly paced, this is one of the best of the bunch.
Film: Passenger 57 Year: 1992 “It’s like Die Hard on an…”: Airplane
Somebody at Warner Brothers really wanted the studio to get its own Die Hard; less than a month after it released Under Siege, the studio put out this Wesley Snipes vehicle, in which a former cop on a passenger flight foils the attempted escape of “the world’s most dangerous hijacker.” (If that’s really his claim to fame, maybe they shoulda considered driving the guy to jail?) Mostly forgotten today, except for Snipes’ riff on the “yippee-ki-yay” line: “Ever play roulette? Let me give you a word of advice — always bet on black.”
Film: Cliffhanger Year: 1993 “It’s like Die Hard on a…”: Mountain
Willis’s John McClane was a new kind of movie action hero: an Everyman (albeit one who looked great with his shirt off) who audiences could relate to, as opposed to the ripped action machines of other ‘80s action flicks, like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. The latter’s star fell particularly hard in the years after Die Hard’s release, so he mounted a comeback in ’93 by grabbing Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin and basically remaking the movie on a mountain, with John Lithgow in the twitching villain role.
Film: Speed Year: 1994 “It’s like Die Hard on a…”: Bus
Die Hard cinematographer Jan de Bont made his directorial debut with this summer smash, and even the laughably wooden line readings of star Keanu Reeves (“I don’t care about your crime!”) couldn’t detract from the windup-toy fun. The Girl Friday sidekick role made Sandra Bullock a star, and Dennis Hopper’s presence as the bus bomber confirmed that these action movie villain roles were quickly becoming the object of desire for actors of a certain age.
Film: No Contest Year: 1995 “It’s like Die Hard at a…”: Beauty pageant
Sooner or later, we were bound to get a female John McClane, and it first came in the form of Shannon Tweed, the former Playboy playmate (and longtime Gene Simmons paramour) who became the queen of direct-to-VHS erotic thrillers. Here she branched out into action heroine territory, playing the host of the “Miss Galaxy Competition,” which is taken over by a gang of thugs led by Andrew Clay (this was during his “No, I’m not Dice, really” phase) and including wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper and Die Hard’s Special Agent Johnson (no, the other one), Robert Davi. (It also begat a sequel, which was basically Die Hard in an art museum.)
Film: Under Siege 2: Dark Territory Year: 1994 “It’s like Die Hard on a…”: Train
Under Siege was enough of a hit for Warner Brothers to press Seagal for a sequel, and he finally signed on when the studio agreed to greenlight his ill-fated directorial debut. Dark Territory was a surprise box-office bust, but it’s actually not half bad (as Seagal movies go): Morris Chestnut is a likable sidekick, a pre-insufferability Katherine Heigl is just fine as Seagal’s niece, and the picture offers the rare opportunity to see the great monologist and character actor Eric Bogosian having the time of his life playing the smarmy villain in a major studio movie.
Film: Sudden Death Year: 1995 “It’s like Die Hard in a…”: Hockey arena
When director Peter Hyams and star Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Timecop was an unexpected hit in 1994, Universal hurried a follow-up into production — but instead of returning to the fertile soil of time traveling law enforcement, they decided to take a crack at the Die Hard rubric. Tormented former fireman Darren McCord (a name meant to recall McClane in no way, shape, or form — total coincidence) is now the fire marshal for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, where the final game of the Stanley Cup Finals is interrupted by a terrorist group holding the Vice President hostage. So see, it’s hockey, so the title has a double meaning, and the sport also allowed for this very goofy tagline: “Action goes into overtime!”
Film: Executive Decision Year: 1996 “It’s like Die Hard on an…”: Airplane, again
Warner Brothers’ quest for a Die Hard continued with this ’96 effort, which placed the formula on a passenger airplane in spite of the fact that the studio’s own Passenger 57 had done the same thing four years earlier. This time, however, there was a twist: an outcome for Steven Seagal notably different than in his Under Siege flicks.
Film: The Rock Year: 1996 “It’s like Die Hard on…”: Alcatraz
Admittedly, Michael Bay’s blockbuster tinkers with the formula a bit, giving us two heroes (an eccentric and an outcast, played by Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery), but otherwise hewing closely to the format of a central location — once they got past the insane opening car chase — and a respected actor (Ed Harris) as a madman with a battery of hostages and an insane plot.
Film: Skyscraper Year: 1996 “It’s like Die Hard in a…”: Skyscraper
Wait a second, you might think. Doesn’t Die Hard take place in a skyscraper, too? And you’d be right. Yes, this direct-to-video mess is such a lazily transparent Die Hard ripoff that it doesn’t even bother changing the location — it merely changes the sex of the protagonist, transforming Willis’s vacationing cop into a foxy helicopter pilot, in order to showcase the slurry line readings and questionable acting skills of the late Anna Nicole Smith.
Film: Daylight Year: 1996 “It’s like Die Hard in a…”: Tunnel
Three years after Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone was ready for another comeback, this time with a hybrid of Die Hard’s rugged hero ethos and the group-in-survival-mode narrative of a ‘70s disaster flick. As a result of that mating, there’s no evil mastermind on screen — just director Rob Cohen, who would go on to helm The Skulls, The Fast and the Furious, Stealth, xXx, and Alex Cross.
Film: Con Air Year: 1997 “It’s like Die Hard on a…”: Prison transport plane
A year after the one-two punch of The Rock and Face/Off made him an unlikely action star, Nicolas Cage returned to Die Hard territory with this inexplicably beloved, over-the-top scenery-chewing contest disguised as a movie. Frankly, it’s less a Die Hard riff than a cross between the second and third installments, combining the airborne action of Die Hard 2 with the citywide destruction of Die Hard With a Vengeance (New York in that film, Las Vegas here).
Film: Air Force One Year: 1997 “It’s like Die Hard on…”: The President’s plane
The subgenre landed its highest-profile hero/villain combo with Wolfgang Peterson’s blockbuster, matching up former Han Solo Harrison Ford as the Commander-in-Chief and well-regarded voice-raiser Gary Oldman as a Russian terrorist who takes control of his jet. It’s an enjoyable enough diversion, though the film’s attempt to make “Get off my plane” into a “Yippee-ki-yay” is kinda sad for everybody involved.
Film: Speed 2: Cruise Control Year: 1997 “It’s like Die Hard on a…”: Cruise liner
Keanu Reeves came out looking like the smartest guy in the room (not a frequent occurrence, that) when he turned down this much-demanded sequel to his 1994 hit. Director Jan de Bont was back, though, and so was Sandra Bullock, so that was good enough, right? Yeah, apparently not; audiences unanimously rejected both Reeves replacement Jason Patric and the film itself, which primarily struggled to make a sluggish cruise ship somehow live up to the first half of the title.
Film: Icebreaker Year: 2000 “It’s like Die Hard at a…”: Ski Resort
Sean Astin — his career not yet reinvigorated by the Lord of the Rings movies — returned to Toy Soldiers territory for this straight-to-DVD tale of a ski resort’s takeover by a band of terrorists (led by the evil, erm, Bruce Campbell) and the “ski patrol bum” (Astin) who must save the day. This one was directed by David Giancola, who would go on to helm Illegal Aliens, featuring Skyscraper star Anna Nicole Smith. Ah, the circle of life of bad movies.
Film: The Taking of Pelham 123 Year: 2009 “It’s like Die Hard on a…”: Subway
To be fair, Tony Scott’s Pelham was a remake of Joseph Sargent’s 1974 film, which predated Die Hard by a good 14 years, so which way does the ripoff go here? Even granting that, Scott’s remake feels influenced as much by Die Hard and its successors as it does by the 1974 original — at least until the action leaves the subway train and the movie really goes off the rails (so to speak).
Film: Command Performance Year: 2009 “It’s like Die Hard at a…”: Concert arena
So did you know Dolph Lundgren was directing his own straight-to-DVD movies now? Me neither! Come to find out, he not only directed but co-wrote this story of a rock drummer and former biker (Lundgren, obviously) who is getting high in the bathroom when terrorists take over a Russian concert venue. Dolph does his own drumming, his daughter is featured in a supporting role, and there’s no word if he, Willis, and Stallone compared notes about these movies on the set of The Expendables 2.
Films: Dredd/The Raid: Redemption Year: 2012 “It’s like Die Hard in an…”: Apartment building
The villains are less flamboyant and the heroes don’t do as much wisecracking, but these strangely similar action epics (one British, one Indonesian) both take their rundown apartment block location and squeeze it like a vice, proving there’s some life yet in this increasingly overworked formula.
Film: Lockout Year: 2012 “It’s like Die Hard in a…”: Space prison
Smirking wise guy Guy Pearce sneaks through the ducts and passages of a space station/cryoprison, eluding the dangerous men who have taken several innocents hostage in order to save the president’s daughter in this cheap, clunky, and laughably derivative (it also lifts giant chunks of Demolition Man, Escape from New York, and even Star Wars) action movie.
Film: Sleepless Night Year: 2012 “It’s like Die Hard in a…”: Nightclub
This breathless French action movie concerns a crooked cop whose son is kidnapped, his ransom a cargo of coke the father stole; the action of the titular evening is set mostly in the bad guy’s nightclub headquarters, where the club music provides a tense, pounding heartbeat for the action. Taut and bracing, and probably the best of the recent Die Hard riffs.
Films: Olympus Has Fallen/ White House Down Year: 2013 “It’s like Die Hard in…”: The White House
Considering how long ago Air Force One came out, it’s a little surprising it took so damn long for some Hollywood genius to go, “Hey, we should do that movie in the president’s house instead of his plane!” And in one of those won’t-blink cases of Hollywood parallel thinking, two different “Die Hard at the White House” movies were put into production, with Olympus beating White House Down into theaters (and doing substantially better business) this spring.