(This week marks the 30th anniversary of Die Hard, arguably the greatest action movie of all time. To celebrate, /Film is exploring the film from every angle with a series of articles. Today: examining the film’s legacy through the numerous rip-offs and knock-offs it inspired in the ’90s.)
If you’ve ever seen the Honest Trailer for Die Hard, then you may recall the lightning round of references at the end riffing on how it was “the original masterpiece that inspired countless knockoffs.” Director John McTiernan’s 1988 film redefined Bruce Willis as an action star and gave rise to a pervasive action-movie formula in which the proverbial one man *epic movie trailer voice* is trapped in a single setting with a bunch of bad guys.
Owing to this, the movie’s title has become a metonym used to refer to other flicks with similar plots. “Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard on a train,” etc. If you grew up during the heyday of ‘90s action movies like I did, then it’s possible you may have been snapping open Blockbuster Video cases to watch some of these flicks at home in your living room before you ever even saw Die Hard or realized that it had influenced them.
As we celebrate its 30th anniversary here on /Film, let’s take a look back at nine key instances from the ‘90s where Hollywood movies recapitulated the Die Hard formula and in some cases launched or reinvented the careers of other notable action movie stars and franchises. Viewed with an appreciation for genre history, these nine derivative actioners (coupled with some honorable mentions from the ’90s and beyond) still hold rewatch value, while illuminating special aspects of Die Hard and showing how it was the gift that kept on giving.
Spoilers for all of these movies lie ahead.
Die Hard 2 (1990)
It’s only fitting that we should kick off this list with the movie that ushered in the ‘90s wave of Die Hard imitators. Yes, Die Hard 2 is an actual Die Hard film, but the lesser crime of self-imitation (goofily expressed by the film’s tagline and sometimes subtitle, “Die Harder,”) doesn’t make it immune to the Die Hard metonym.
This is “Die Hard in an airport.” That setting is another reason why Die Hard 2 is an appropriate choice for the first entry on this list. The film involves hero John McClane contending with henchmen in the airport while his wife’s plane and other incoming air traffic circles overhead, unable to communicate with ground control or land on the airport’s darkened runways. Only after McClane first lights the way in an explosive fashion are the planes able to start touching down.
In the first Die Hard, McClane was an untested hero drawn into extraordinary circumstances. Far from being invincible, he could be and was memorably hurt, cutting up his bare feet on broken glass, dragging a trail of his own blood behind him. The very existence of Die Hard 2 somewhat undermines the vulnerability and credibility of the character because the audience knows that he has already been through another ordeal like this and survived.
Saving the day is now a regular old Christmas Eve tradition for John McClane. As the movie puts it, being “the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time” has become “the story of his life.” Like a private citizen solving TV murders on a weekly basis, the fresh “Yippee-ki-yay” thrill of the first movie gets diluted when the same cop (more often than not, off-duty) keeps getting drawn into increasingly improbable adventures.
Honorable mention: Live Free or Die Hard (2007). An older, shaven-headed Willis returns to the role of McClane to find the terrorists have gone cyber.
Under Siege (1992)
In real life, Steven Seagal is now a Russian citizen who has been accused of sexual harassment in the last year by actresses like Julianna Margulies, Portia de Rossi, and Jenny McCarthy. He’s been exiled largely to the direct-to-video market in the 21st century, but there was a time when Seagal ruled the roost as an action star and the movie that brought him into the mainstream is Under Siege.
It’s a movie that’s rightly been labeled “Die Hard on a battleship.” The funny thing is, while Seagal is ostensibly the star of the film, his character — a Navy SEAL turned ship’s cook — only has 41 minutes of screen time. It’s actually Tommy Lee Jones, clad in a bandana, black shades, and a rhinestone-studded leather jacket, who steals the show here as terrorist Bill Strannix. Jones would re-team with director Andrew Davis the next year for his Oscar-winning role in The Fugitive. He was on the upswing, and with Gary Busey lending him zany support (at one point, Busey even appears in drag), he delivered a villain cut from the same scene-chewing cloth as Hans Gruber.
Like Die Hard, the villain’s plan and the seemingly outmatched hero’s attempts to foil it drive the whole plot of Under Siege. Disguised as an entertainer, Strannix hides in plain sight at first, similar to how Gruber effortlessly dons the American accent of “Bill Clay” to try and trick McClane. He’s also one step ahead of negotiators, able to call up secret missile launch codes to show he’s in control.
Honorable mention: Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. The third Die Hard film was originally supposed to be set on a cruise ship but after the success of Under Siege, it had to be reimagined. With Jeremy Irons playing the new surrogate Gruber, Die Hard with a Vengeance took to the streets for a furious New York cab ride, whereas Under Siege 2 was content to remain confined to a single location: namely, a train. By 1995, this series had become more Die Hard than Die Hard.