No action movie has been as influential as Die Hard. After all, the ‘Die Hard scenario’ is an official sub-genre, one that is home to a vast quantity of knockoffs. As one might expect, most of them are cheap jobs: cash grabs, attempts to ride the coattails of the greatest action film ever made. But there certainly are standouts—films that take the Die Hard formula and rework it, resulting in a product that is, in some cases, truly great. Here are five of those films.
The first of two Bruce Willis vehicles on this list, Hostage is, as far as the following four films go, something of an outlier. It contains action elements—there’s an incredible battle toward the end that takes place in a burning mansion—but it’s actually more of a drama than anything else. Willis stars as a hostage negotiator turned small town police chief. He quits the negotiation gig after a failed showdown results in the death of a kid, but now, years later, finds himself thrust into the same situation again, now given a shot at redemption.
It’s a picture that never got the attention it deserved. In the vein of the first Die Hard, Hostage does a great job generating a stressful (and often frightening) atmosphere that is capable of impacting the viewer. Willis’ character is a step removed from McClane, but we can see that character fitting in here: here’s another guy that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, another guy who’s done wrong in the past and has a chance to set it right. In some respects, it’s a slightly more ‘new age’ rendering of the Die Hard formula. This one is not about using violence as a means to an end, but rather using one’s head and heart, and only resorting to violence when it is an absolute necessity. So Hostage gives the formula an interesting twist, and it all plays out satisfactorily. This is not a blockbuster film—it will not blow you away—but it is certainly a good film, and it is one that I wish more people should be aware of.
If we are looking for the textbook example of how to create a Die Hard knockoff, we need look no further than Air Force One. The more I watch this picture, the more I appreciate how slavishly the screenwriters ripped off the first Die Hard. The narrative differences between the two are cosmetic: Bruce Willis plays a cop, Harrison Ford the President; Willis is trapped in a high-rise office building; Ford in, as one might guess, Air Force One. Here the differences end, and we get the sense that whoever penned Air Force One simply laid a sheet of tracing paper over Die Hard’s script and started duplicating. Just as in Die Hard, a group of hostages are rounded up into one room. The protagonist is also trapped in a small area and only stirs once terrorists are sent down to look for him. The protagonist also relies on support from authorities on the ground. The protagonist’s family (Ford’s wife and daughter) are also in jeopardy. The likeness between the two abounds still further.
Surprisingly, none of this it goes bad. There’s a certain novelty to seeing the President take it to a bunch of bad guys. It’s not just a Hollywood fantasy, of course—we romanticize figures like President Washington in the same way—but we love the idea of our leader proving that he can fight for himself. While the creators of Air Force One didn’t necessarily mean to evoke this—this is about as classic a popcorn flick as you’ll find—that doesn’t bar the film from reflecting that part of our culture, albeit inadvertently. But perhaps the most curious thing about Air Force One is that it appears to be stuck in a Cold War vacuum. It was released in 1997, and yet it features Soviet-era Russian terrorists that wax eloquent about the joys of communism and the evils of Western imperialism and free marketeering. Huh? Didn’t that debate get definitely closed eight years prior to the film hitting screens?
While Air Force One is the quintessential literal Die Hard knockoff, Speed is the truly classic example that all of us tend to think of first. For years it was referred to simply as ‘Die Hard on a bus,’ a moniker that is beginning to fade with time, for better or for worse (read: for worse). To call it that is to suggest that it is unsubstantial or too much of a copycat work, yet the film succeeds in a number of ways that might surprise us. For one, almost the entire thing takes place on a bus, which is an even more limited setting than Die Hard’s high-rise, but Speed never becomes boring or stale as we might initially fear. In fact, it navigates this problem remarkably well. Plenty of technical challenges are thrown Keanu Reeves’ way—defuse this bomb, jump over this piece of missing highway, and so on—but he must also deal with the social issues that are often overlooked by films of this ilk. Passengers obviously panic when they are told there is a bomb on the bus; some try to be heroes, while some try to take control of the bus by force, believing they can do a better job of managing the situation.
Though Speed is not a particularly astonishing film, it is a solid action film—well rounded, totally inoffensive, and something you can sit back and watch on practically any occasion. There’s nothing wrong with taking a simple approach to a genre and nailing the landing. In fact, it’s a quality that we should prize: not every film needs to attempt something new. This one takes the Die Hard scenario and reframes it slightly with a more pressing circumstance (a bomb that can explode at any time), but otherwise leaves it at that. The result is a classic 90s action piece, a film that puts modern generic action films to shame. There is no invincible superhuman here; no protagonist taking on a million terrorists with nary a scratch on him to show for it. Speed isn’t a shooting gallery. Speed is a man trapped on a bus. We don’t need much more than that.
Dredd is close to what Die Hard might have been if it was first made today: an unremitting carnival of action and brutal justice that makes you stare in awe and, on a number of occasions, stand and applaud. It is the most intense any Die Hard-style film has been since the original, and, if we are being entirely honest, it goes even further than the first Die Hard. This is a high octane film, the visual equivalent of the slow and heavy Metallica songs from the 90s (I’m thinking ‘Sad But True’)—something that thuds into you unremittingly and unapologetically, and somehow comes up smelling like roses. Dredd is an evolution of the McClane character that is actually believable. Like McClane, Judge Dredd can be (and is) injured; like McClane, Judge Dredd is fallible and flawed.
Dredd is a substantial callback to the first Die Hard. It takes place in one tall building, and it is centered on a domineering villain who essentially stays in one spot for the entire picture.
And, as with Die Hard, violence is the only option for our hero. Dredd is a gorgeous, pulpy picture—the kind of thrill ride we haven’t had since 1988. If it weren’t for the significance the next film has to the Die Hard franchise itself and to the character of John McClane, this picture would easily take the top spot.
1. 16 Blocks
I’m glad that this movie exists, because it gives us a very easy out for the poor direction the Die Hard franchise has gone in. It allows us to pretend that Live Free or Die Hard (and now A Good Day to Die Hard) never happened, and that this, 16 Blocks, is in fact the proper fourth Die Hard movie. That’s because, for all intents and purposes, it is: it stars Bruce Willis as a cop, it has him fighting against corrupt policemen, not terrorists, and it takes place in New York City. It’s as if somebody sat down, watched Die Hard: With a Vengeance, asked what the natural progression for the character and the franchise would be, and immediately started writing the script.
Make no mistake—this is John McClane here. Willis’ cop is a broken man: unkempt and dirty; a bona fide alcoholic that is no longer taken seriously by any of his peers. It’s not only a believable trajectory for the character following With a Vengeance. For an unapologetic fan of the franchise like me, it’s the correct trajectory for the character. John McClane has always had issues, as much as the fourth and fifth Die Hard films would like to pretend otherwise. 16 Blocks depicts what he eventually becomes: a joke. It’s a startling fall from grace, but it’s one that is absolutely suited to the character. He’s already suffering from depression in With a Vengeance, and there’s no reason to believe his condition would have gotten any better ten years on. Having Willis faceoff against corrupt police also makes sense for the McClane arc. McClane is an abrasive guy, and it’s completely believable that he doesn’t have a whole lot of friends in the department. He sees some things he shouldn’t see, refuses to play ball... it’s a scenario that not only makes sense for the character, but provides a satisfying capstone on his story. A simple shootout in Chinatown isn’t bombastic and isn’t grand, but it’s the way McClane has to go: no bang, all whimper.
It’s not simply the fact that the story is leagues better than Live Free or Die Hard, or that it makes sense as an ending point for the Die Hard franchise. 16 Blocks is actually a capable film: well directed, well shot, and well acted. A standout is Mos Def, whose nervous, wacky character (a wrongly accused man that Willis’ cop has decided to defend) is a revelation. We leave you with some advice that I like to dispatch whenever the later films in the Die Hard franchise are brought up. If you’re looking for the ‘true’ Die Hard series, nix anything past With a Vengeance and watch 16 Blocks instead. If you have a box set that came with the fourth film, rip out the fourth film and replace it with this. This is the real John McClane. This is how it should have gone.