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From the Wire: The Enduring Appeal of 'Die Hard' Knock-Offs

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by Matt Singer
February 13, 2013 10:20 AM
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Fabrizio Maltese Frederic Jardin's "Sleepless Night"

There have been four official "Die Hard" sequels -- the latest, "A Good Day to Die Hard," opens in theaters this Friday -- and maybe five times that many unofficial ones in the form of knock-offs that restaged its core concept -- cop trapped in some kind of isolated or confined location with terrorists or bank robbers -- everywhere and anywhere humanly possible. Crave Online has a list of "The Top Nine 'Die Hard' Knock-Offs," including three films starring Steven Seagal, who, if nothing else, will always have his title as King of the "'Die Hard' in a ______" Movies. Here's what Crave's William Bibbiani had to say about Seagal's "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory:"

"This time, Casey Ryback’s on vacation with his niece, played by Katherine Heigl (yes, that Katherine Heigl), and taking the train from Colorado to Los Angeles. Naturally, the train gets hijacked by terrorists, who somehow manage to elude the authorities despite being stuck on, well, train tracks. This time, they’re being led by famed playwright Eric Bogosian, who hams it up like mad as a hacker anarchist selling his space earthquake gun technology to the highest bidder. It’s just as stupid as it sounds, but it’s also a fast-paced thriller with entertaining performances and many memorable scenes, including a terrorist who’s so manly that he uses Heigl’s pepper spray to clear his sinuses."

William, you are much, much too kind. Plus, you forgot the best recent "Die Hard" knock-off, "Sleepless Night," which is "'Die Hard' in a Parisian nightclub," and is nine kinds of awesome and eight kinds of ass-kicking in one kind of movie. And it's available right now on Netflix Watch Instantly. I'm not saying you should go watch that instead of "A Good Day to Die Hard," but I'm -- wait, hold on. I think that is what I'm saying.

Anyway, it's a fun list, but I'm less interested in what the 'Die Hard' knock-offs are than why there are so many of them. What is it about this formula that has inspired so many imitators -- and so many viewers to pay their hard-earned money to see them? The first "Die Hard" was certainly iconic. But there are lots of iconic movies, and not all of them create their own sub-genre of derivatives. So why so many derivatives of "Die Hard?"

Maybe it's because "Die Hard" is, in some ways, the perfect action film. I don't mean it's perfect in terms of quality -- although it might be that too -- but perfect in terms of construction, like some kind of cinematic Platonic ideal. The hero is relatable -- smart but sensitive, tough but vulnerable -- and he's on a quest to do more than just beat the bad guys; he's got to save his family, too. He's an underdog, totally outgunned and outnumbered, and he's trapped with all these bad guys, so he can't run away even if he wants to. He can fight or he can die. Every single moment is life or death -- not just his life but his wife's life and the lives of all the other hostages. The tension, the structure, the tone, the theme, the stakes. You probably can't improve on them, so you copy them instead.

Or maybe it's because the "Die Hard" franchise can't give us the "Die Hard" sequel we really want -- which is another movie just like "Die Hard." You can only be the underdog so many times before you start to look like the guy the terrorists should be afraid of, instead of the other way around. It was (die) hard enough to work through all the machinations to get John McClane alone in that tower with Hans Gruber and his henchman once -- and it was a strain getting him into that airport with those bad guys in "Die Hard 2." After that, each "Die Hard" moved further away from the formula -- the fourth, "Live Free or Die Hard," is less like the original movie than most of the knock-offs -- exchanging the claustrophobia for big, open chases, and the life-or-death tension of a couple angry gunmen with crazy puzzles, massive computer hacking plots and, in the latest film, weapons-grade uranium. Though it's unfortunate how cartoonish the "Die Hard" sequels have gotten, maybe there was no alternative -- after all, a more "realistic" sequel is basically impossible, or at least implausible.

The very idea of a "Die Hard" sequel is absurd -- so you might as well make an absurd "Die Hard" sequel. If you want to make a serious "Die Hard" sequel, you might be better off making a serious "Die Hard" knock-off instead.

Read more of "The Top Nine 'Die Hard' Knock-Offs."

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