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.