It’s hard to overstate how big an impact Die Hard had on the action genre. It was, in short, an absolute revelation: it was superbly written, superbly acted, superbly filmed, and superbly directed, and to this day plenty of action films emulate it. None have yet managed to surpass it, but there are a number of admirable efforts, and many interesting takes on what has come to be known as the “Die Hard scenario.” Indeed, Die Hard practically introduced an action sub-genre all on its own: the one-man-army film, where an unassuming regular Joe-type hero manages to save the day, usually by foiling some terrorist plot. But for me, Die Hard and the Die Hard scenario is less about the characters involved in the drama than it is about the setting. Die Hard thrives on the fact that its protagonist is trapped within a tiny area from which there is apparently no exit, other than through the front door. Indeed, the more the Die Hard films opened up the less true to themselves they became—the ultimate being Live Free or Die Hard which, though a passable action film, barely deserves a place in the Die Hard series.
So why is a confined area so important to this scenario? I contend that it’s about the position the protagonist is placed in. If the protagonist is trapped in a small area, the threat posed by the enemy is magnified intensely, making the drama all the more compelling. There is no way out of Nakatomi Plaza for John McClane. His range is intensely restricted—he spends much of his time in air vents, elevator shafts, and in cramped office spaces. His environment is positively hostile, and death can come at any time. Moreover, it feels like the enemy is everywhere, and for the most part they quite literally are. It is a curious paradox: in most action films the hero would simply gun his adversaries down, but here space is so condensed and McClane is so outnumbered that he cannot directly attack the terrorists. It’s very much like a game of chess—you’re more vulnerable to attack if you go all out on offense. Keeping a low profile proves more fruitful.
An airplane is perhaps the ultimate Die Hard setting (ignore the fortuitous fact that none of the Die Hard pictures have actually set Bruce Willis in a plane). There is no way out once the plane is airborne, space is extremely limited, and there are threats everywhere. Air Force One ranks among my favorite non-Die Hard Die Hard films. It’s not a terrific picture—the twist ending is about as poorly executed as they come—but it is certainly entertaining, and it’s a good practical example of how well Die Hard works in quarters even more cramped than a high-rise building. The brilliance of the original Die Hard is that, in a certain sense, McClane must battle with his environment just as much as he battles with the terrorists. He struggles to make it through vents and he struggles to survive the elevator shaft, he almost doesn’t survive the roof, he can barely find a place to hide, and he is not first hurt by bullets but by the tons of glass that the building is filled with.
The President goes through much the same in Air Force One. First (and perhaps foremost), there is almost nowhere to hide on a plane. The bathroom provides little cover, and all the little private rooms in the specially constructed luxury jet are similarly insufficient. But there are other things inherent to the design of a plane that make for interesting action film fodder—the likes of Passenger 57 have also capitalized on these. The airplane environment is perhaps the most threatening of all small confines. It seems almost too simple to note but planes can, of course, crash, which is an absolute calamity for anyone aboard; but from a more technical perspective, there are all manner of things that can go wrong on a plane—the loss of cabin pressure, for instance, or the loss of fuel. Both the President in Air Force One and John Cutter in Passenger 57 force a fuel dump as a way of sabotaging the terrorists.
I think we can draw an action film truth out of Die Hard and its progeny like Air Force One (and Passenger 57, for that matter): action is better when it is contained in a claustrophobic environment. We are, in essence, trapped in the same tight space as the characters on screen. The action is uniquely personal—we see every punch, we see every bullet wound, and we see the brutality of the fighting in its fullest extent. The battles are so desperate and uncoordinated (the characters bump into walls, careen down stairwells) that we really feel our hero might not make it out alive. During all this, the camera is in tight. A good director—like McTiernan in Die Hard—will make us feel the same stress and claustrophobia that the protagonist does. Plenty of films following the Die Hard formula have done this well, but none have done it as well as the original. For the entirety of Die Hard we are in precisely the same emotional space as McClane. We feel exactly as he does. An example: McClane is chased into an elevator shaft and must reach from one side of the shaft to the other. If he loses his grip he likely plunges to his death. McClane drops, but he manages to grasp onto another vent connected to the shaft.
But consider this: we have emotional parity with McClane throughout the entire scene. We are terrified as he reaches for the vent, we are crushed for the split-second when he is freefalling, and we are overjoyed when he lifts himself into the shaft and sparks his lighter. Then, moments later, the claustrophobia and the terror returns when one of the terrorists tries to corner McClane by firing an assault rifle at the vents. The action here is tight and personal. It’s not loud—in other words, it’s not full of explosions and car chases and the like—but it is incredibly impactful. We are on an emotional rollercoaster. We ride into the peaks and plummet into the troughs along with our hero. His journey is choppy, so ours is as well. That emotional ride is immensely satisfying. Consider that the action in Die Hard occurs suddenly and ends in a hurry. The longest battle is staged early on in the film on the roof of the building, and lasts for under a minute. The brilliant thing about Die Hard is that, compared to a James Bond flick or The Transporter, there is very little action in the film. And yet it is incredibly entertaining. It’s not because people are being slain in every scene—it’s because we’re connected with our hero. We are, in a sense, standing beside him.
That kind of action wouldn’t be possible if Die Hard took place across a multitude of settings. In fact, we have the luxury of comparing it to its sequels—specifically Die Hard with a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard—and we can see that the later Die Hards fare poorly compared to the original and, to a slightly lesser degree, the second film (in which McClane was trapped in an airport). The third Die Hard is a terrific picture, and its script is excellent (you might even call its plot ingenious—its writer was reportedly questioned by the FBI because the terrorist attack within was actually viable), but it is nowhere near as compelling as the original Die Hard. It’s not that the performances in Vengeance are inferior or the quality of the directing is lesser—it’s just that we aren’t as tied to McClane because we don’t spend the film standing right beside him, as it were. Vengeance takes place across an entire city. We are not given the chance to connect with McClane.
By contrast, consider another film, 16 Blocks, also set in New York City though, as its name might suggest, only across sixteen blocks. Unlike Vengeance, which darts from Harlem to the subway to a park to a vault to a school to an underground tunnel to a ship and, finally, all the way to Canada, 16 Blocks consolidates its time in just a few spots across the city—namely, a desolate building, and a bus, along with some city streets in between. Again, the camera work is close, and again the action is compact, and again we draw close to our protagonist. Die Hard and 16 Blocks do not have giant shootouts. They do not have massive explosions where cars and ships go up in smoke; they do not have our hero gloriously slaying an infinite number of enemies. But they do have that greater personal connection, one that is necessarily borne from the compact setting in which the action is staged. For me, that connection with the protagonist is more entertaining and more valuable than an array of gratuitous explosions and shootouts. Those can still be a lot of fun, but they cannot be as intelligent or as meaningful as the drama in a close picture like Die Hard.