By Drew Taylor | The Playlist July 18, 2013 at 12:36PM
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.