2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
The success of the 1988 action blockbuster Die Hard has reverberated for more than a generation. Not only did Bruce Willis reprise his hardboiled John McClane in four sequels, but countless films have copied the broad strokes of the original screenplay to create a similar pattern of thrills, suspense and fiery spectacle. The subgenre has been called “Die Hard on a [blank],” wherein the skyscraper setting is replaced by some other high-stakes and confined locale. Add an all-American hero outnumbered by bad guys, and you’re set.
Air Force One could’ve been pitched as Die Hard on a Plane. And the 1997 Harrison Ford vehicle, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, is far from the only film to apply the formula this way. But it’s the most methodical of those homages, and maybe the ultimate Die Hard ripoff, in the sense that it hews closely to the premise while twisting every detail for maximum pop.
Start with your protagonist. McClane is an NYPD detective estranged from his wife and hoping to reconcile on a Christmas visit to Los Angeles. He’s an underdog, nervous, out of his element. Somewhat relatable, in other words. Who wants that? We’re going with a faultless, unflappable family man who happens to be the most powerful cop in the world: the president of the United States. In fact, this guy — President James Marshall — is orchestrating special ops to jail rogue dictators like General Ivan Radek, a Soviet nationalist and rogue dictator of Kazakhstan threatening to use a leftover nuclear arsenal from the Cold War. This, in turn, leads a group of Radek loyalists (their commander, Egor Korshunov, played by Gary Oldman) to hijack Air Force One as it leaves Moscow, taking the passengers hostage. Only Marshall, who is also a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient — why not! — eludes capture and tries to survive.
Impressively, this setup blends elements of the first three films in the Die Hard franchise. You have a lone cowboy playing cat and mouse with terrorists as he tries to pick them off one by one to rescue their captives, including his wife (and this time, a bonus daughter). Then, from Die Hard 2, you have a paramilitary unit trying to secure the release of a nefarious general in state custody, combined with the tension of imperiled airplanes. Thirdly, it incorporates a layer of Die Hard with a Vengeance: The villains may be carrying out an elaborate heist of sorts, but they’re also settling a personal score. As Korshunov, Oldman fumes about mass murder in the name of American hegemony, and he accuses President Marshall of killing “100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas.” Yeah, he’s executing unarmed civilians, but damn, points were made!
Capable as he is (and one really does want Harrison Ford to be president), Marshall has moments of weakness and failure that match up with McClane’s beats in Die Hard. Both men are put in an impossible situation when their antagonist tries to draw them out by menacing a hostage, because neither can reveal himself without being captured and presumably killed themselves. Both times, the hero agonizes as the prisoner is shot in their stead, only in Die Hard it’s a sleazy suit who talked his own way into the trap, and in Air Force One, it’s a trembling press secretary named Melanie, chosen at random and murdered in front of the First Family — another example of this screenplay pushing to great extremes.
Meanwhile, Marshall, like McClane, has to establish contact with a ally on the ground, one whose trust and support will prove critical though they are coded as sort of helpless in these circumstances: Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) is this movie’s LAPD Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), underestimated but proven an exemplary figure as they rise to the unprecedented occasion.
What’s funny is that while recycling these tropes and dynamics, Air Force One makes them near-frictionless, delivering a more Hollywoodized take on something that already feels quintessentially Hollywood. Where John McClane is brutally injured and blood-soaked, walking on broken glass without shoes, President Marshall takes a bullet to the arm and seems to immediately forget it’s in there. His victory is as inevitable as the sweepingly patriotic score, while McClane’s is barely conceivable. Marshall has the advantage, too, of knowing his environment — it belongs to him. Nakatomi Plaza is strange, hostile territory for McClane, yet the most iconic quip from Air Force One, delivered by Marshall as he dispatches Korshunov, is the epitome of ownership: “Get off my plane!”
And the last moments of these twinned movies, when the bruised warrior faces one last surprise threat, summarize the dual approaches: McClane is almost killed by a terrorist we thought was dead, but saved by well-aimed shots from Sgt. Powell. President Marshall has to fight the last man standing — a traitorous Secret Service mole (Xander Berkeley) who helped Korshunov take the plane — by himself.
We never learn the agent’s reasons for joining the plot, as Wolfgang Petersen decided a scene explaining this would be irrelevant, and he was right: The character is only there as a means to give the enemy upper hand, and then to provide a final jolt of fear and adrenaline before the credits roll, much as Karl, the chief lieutenant of Hans Gruber, does at the end of Die Hard.
All of these parallels, all of this streamlining and ante-upping, and even the flattening of certain roles into ciphers and obvious symbols, adds up to more than Die Hard on a Plane. If it speaks the ruthless logic of a studio stretching a blueprint to the absolute limit — notice the casting of the vaunted Ford and Oldman, as compared to Die Hard’s then-untested TV and stage actors, Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman — it still achieves a giddy, explosive bombast worthy of the source material.
In the absence of a new idea, you’d better soar on the wings of a borrowed one. Air Force One doesn’t have many surprises. It just has the audacity not to care.