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Back at the time of the release of Die Hard With A Vengeance in the 1990s, Bruce Willis appeared on Late Night With David Letterman and told a story of a recent kayak mishap where his boat had flipped over and he was hanging on to a large rock for dear life. He revealed that he told God if he got him through this, he wouldn’t do anymore bad comedies or movies of questionable taste. Curious, Letterman pointed out that the actor hadn’t said anything about Die Hard. “Hey,” Willis replied with a smile, “a man’s gotta eat.”
Well, Die Hard has certainly let Willis eat well since he made his debut as cop John McClane nearly 30 years ago in the original 1988 film. Playing one guy alone against incredible odds, McClane was a man of action who was, at the same time, vulnerable and actually afraid of dying. Both he and director John McTiernan tapped into something that the action genre generally hadn’t: the human hero. It’s something that has carried Willis through four sequels and word that a fifth is on the way.
At the same time, the Die Hard formula inspired many others to try and duplicate that film’s success, and — really surprisingly — it’s worked far more than it probably should have. Over the past 30 years we’ve seen the format brought to a few planes, a battleship, a train, an island, an ice hockey stadium, and the list just goes on and on from there. None of which includes the vast number of TV shows (including an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that saw Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean Luc Picard take on something of the McClane persona...without the cursing, of course) that decided to go the *Die Hard route.
What follows is a look at the Die Hard series, some of the films it inspired and a preview of the next installment, Die Hard: Year One.
Die Hard (1988)
The one that started it all, as John McClane (Bruce Willis), in LA to visit his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company Christmas party, finds himself ass-deep in terrorists as Nakatomi Plaza becomes the victim of a brilliantly-conceived heist. His opponent is one Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), one of the greatest movie villains ever created. Nearly 30 years on and it remains one of the greatest action films. Period (that one’s for you, Sean Spicer).
Die Hard 2 (1990)
What are the odds of the same thing happening to the same guy twice? That question is brilliantly asked by John McClane in the middle of the action, which goes a long way in evening the odds of him being caught in the middle of terrorist action again. This time he’s snowbound at Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport, where the bad guys (led by William Sadler’s Colonel Stuart) have taken over air traffic control and will start crashing planes (one of which his wife is a passenger on) if a political prisoner, en route to the airport, is not handed over to him. Sure some of it’s dopey, but Willis remains great as McClane and the action is superb. Directed by Renny Harlin.
Home Alone (1990)
No doubt you’re asking what the hell this one is doing in a guide to Die Hard-like films. Just think about it: little Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is accidentally left home (alone) by his family when they travel out of state for Christmas. Proving himself reliable, he seems to be doing okay on his own. But, wait a sec, Kevin overhears a pair of bad guys (played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) planning on robbing his house. Taking matters into his own hands, he’s ready for them when they arrive, setting up a wide array of booby traps from items around the house. Yippee ki yay...uh… young fella.
Passenger 57 (1992)
Wesley Snipes is John Cutter (doesn’t that name just scream action hero?), a former cop flying to LA to begin working for the airline’s anti-terrorism unit. On the same flight happens to be a captured terrorist who is being transported to LA by the FBI, and he just happens to have people on the inside that set him free. When the plane is taken over, Cutter, who hasn’t identified himself as a member of law enforcement, goes into action. After this one, it doesn’t matter what his resume says — he’s got the job.
Under Siege (1992)
Another really strong variation of the theme. This time the setting is the USS battleship Missouri, which gets taken over by terrorists who have passed themselves off as a rock band brought aboard to entertain the crew. Their plan is to steal the ship’s nuclear weapons, but that doesn’t jive with Chef Petty Officer — and former Navy SEAL — Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal). Three years later Seagal reprised the role in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, the action shifting to a train and terrorists who want to use technology hidden on it to destroy the Eastern seaboard.
Seems like a little bit of a reach in terms of the Die Hard formula, but we’re going with it. The setting is the Rocky Mountains, and Sylvester Stallone is a former mountain rescuer dealing with a personal trauma who agrees to help what appear to be stranded hikers. In reality, they’re a band of criminals, led by John Lithgow’s Eric Qualen, who are in search of over $100 million lost in the mountains during a plane crash. Yo, Sly manages to put his trauma aside to take care of business.
One of the best of the Die Hard formula films. Dennis Hopper has planted a bomb on a bus full of people that will detonate if the vehicle’s speed drops below 50MPH. The only thing standing in the way of that happening is the spunky bus driver (Sandra Bullock) and LAPD officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves), who is transported onto the bus while it’s moving. Extra bonus: in a sense you get a sequel at the end of the film (you’ve got to see it to understand that). There was an actual sequel in the form of 1997’s Speed 2: Cruise Control, with Jason Patric replacing Reeves and taking place on a cruise ship, but nobody cares.
Die Hard With A vengeance (1995)
Third in the series, it shakes up the formula and works remarkably well until the climax, which obviously no one could figure out what to do with. But it almost doesn’t matter, as Willis’ John McClane is teamed up with Samuel L. Jackson’s store owner Zeus Carver. Together, they’re sent all around New York City (oh, yeah, McClane’s marriage has fallen apart again, so he’s back in NY) in what seems to be a revenge scheme from Hans Gruber's brother, Simon (Jeremy Irons). He and Carver have to figure out riddles and move to another destination to prevent explosives from going off around the city. Simon’s plan may not be what it seems to be (we know it isn't, but that would be spoiling things).
Sudden Death (1995)
It’s Die Hard in a hockey rink! The Pittsburgh Civic Arena is taken over by terrorists led by ex-CIA agent Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe), who is holding the vice president hostage and will blow up the stadium if his ransom isn’t paid. Naturally only one man can stop him, and in this case that would be Jean-Claude Van Damme’s former fireman, Darren McCord.
Executive Decision (1996)
Terrorists (does Hollywood ever run out of those guys?) take over a flight from Greece to Washington DC demanding the release of a prisoner, though it turns out there is a nerve gas bomb on board that they hope to detonate at the White House. Our heroes this time are Kurt Russell’s US Army specialist David Grant and Steven Seagal’s Colonel Austin Travis.
The Rock (1996)
Michael Bay’s second movie, and it is awesome. Ed Harris leads a team of mercenaries to take over Alcatraz Island, and hold tourists as hostage. His goal is to get $100 million in war reparations for the families of men who sacrificed themselves for America (the mercs are there for the money, as it would turn out). If his demands aren’t met, he will launch rockets armed with nerve gas into San Francisco. Our only hope is FBI chemical warfare expert Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) and former British spy John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery). The chemistry between Cage and Connery is amazing, and if you ever wondered what it would be like to see Connery as an older James Bond, you more or less get it here.
Air Force One (1997)
On his way home to America from a speech in Moscow proclaiming that the US will never negotiate with terrorists, Harrison Ford’s President James Marshall finds that he and his family have been taken hostage on Air Force One. This is one president who doesn’t need a McClane, he’s a former soldier and takes matters into his own hands. Wonder if Ford, who has brought back Han Solo, Blade Runner’s Rick Deckerd and will be reprising Indiana Jones, will return to the role of Marshall. When this guy proclaims, “Get off my plane!”, you’re tempted to jump with or without a chute.
Con Air (1997)
Nicolas Cage is just-paroled army ranger Cameron Poe, who his flying home to his wife aboard a transport that just happens to have some really bad guys aboard, including John Malkovich’s Cyrus “The Virus” Grisson, who take over the plane. Guess what, Poe’s the guy who has to stop him. One thing about Cage int his one: he is jacked.
Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)
The Die Hard series goes a bit into cartoon/James Bond land with this entry which deals with McClane teaming up with a computer hacker (Justin Long) to take down Timothy Olyphant’s Thomas Gabriel, who has taken over the country’s digital network and is plunging the world into chaos. Directed by Len Wiseman, this is a great (though admittedly silly) adventure that works like gangbusters because it remains a passion project of everyone involved.
A Good Day To Die Hard (2013)
This time McClane travels to Moscow to find his cop son (Jai Courtney), who is believed to be a criminal, though it turns out he’s there undercover attempting to protect a Russian government defector. The two of them end up working together to stop a deadly plan from taking place in the region of Chernobyl. We have no hesitation to call this film absolute garbage, the worst of the series and it’s obvious that nobody — especially Willis — gives a damn. It makes us sad.
Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
Those friggin’ terrorists are at it again, taking over the White House with some inside help. Hope comes in the form of ex-presidential security officer Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), who has to find the president’s son — who is hiding somewhere in the White House — before the terrorists do. This one definitely connected with the audience, spawning the 2016 sequel London Has Fallen, with rumblings of a third entry in development.
Die Hard: Year One (TBA)
This one could represent the opportunity to pump some fresh blood into the Die Hard franchise, restore it to something of its former glory and wash away the taste of A Good Day To Die Hard. It will serve as both a prequel and continuation of the series, looking at McClane (with a younger actor in the role) in his earlier days with Willis reprising the part for the present. It’s being directed by Live Free Or Die Hard’s Len Wiseman, and is actually based on an eight-issue comic book miniseries written by Howard Chaykin. The first four issues look at McClane as a rookie cop during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration in New York City, while the last four take place during his first year as a detective during the city-wide blackout of 1977. Presumably the film version will tie events from his past into a present story.
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