December is upon us, and millions of people are readying themselves for their annual Die Hard rewatch. A seasonal viewing of the 1988 hit is an important part of the holiday season for a great many people, which isn’t something that can be said for a lot of 32-year-old films. But why is Die Hard so awesome? Can watching movies that ape its formula show us?
The three factors that seem most key to its success are:
- A ticking clock and limited location. There are no outfit changes in Die Hard. John McClane ends the movie in the tank-top he was wearing under his shirt at the beginning of it. The warm sweaters the terrorists show up in are what they’re wearing when they die.
- A resourceful lone wolf protagonist in over his head but with no choice but to persevere. McClane isn’t an everyman — he’s a tough-as-hell New York cop. He’s way outnumbered and outgunned, but he’s a quick thinker and can’t walk away from the situation — there are hostages, his wife among them, so he has to step up and kill some baddies.
- A proper actor as the baddie, having a wonderful time doing some extremely big acting while surrounded by an interesting bunch of henchmen. A real, trained thespian, a capital-a Actor, rather than just some guy that can do a bit of cackling. Unbelievably, Die Hard was Alan Rickman’s first movie, but he had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and performed on Broadway with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s surrounded by Karl, Heinrich, Uli et al, a colorful bunch of total bastards.
There’s more going on, of course (Die Hard’s relationships with law enforcement and capitalism are complex and nuanced — compare Ellis’ spinelessness with Takagi’s integrity, and the FBI’s gung-ho foolhardiness with McClane and Powell’s beat-cop dependability), but these are the three things most associated with the idea of what Die Hard is. So again, by watching a big bunch of imitators — too many, in fact — can we pinpoint exactly why Die Hard rules so goddamn much?
Home Alone — Die Hard… in a Suburban Family Home!
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? Oh totally! Two thieves, the Wet Bandits, are planning to rob all the houses on a Chicago street on Christmas Eve.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is a nine-year-old boy accidentally left behind in the Chicago suburbs when his family goes to Paris for Christmas. Feeling unable to call the police due to viewing himself as a toothbrush-thieving criminal, he’s forced to defend his enormous, Nakatomi Plaza-sized home with paint cans and blunt-force trauma.
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? Joe Pesci made Home Alone in between the filming and release of Goodfellas, a film for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He and co-Wet Bandit Daniel Stern go full Three Stooges, doing somersault falls, impressively massive gurning and high-level slapstick bickering. While there are just two Wet Bandits, the film features an array of supporting assholes, from Buzz to Uncle Frank to a semi-imaginary talking furnace.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? The two are often paired together due to being set at Christmas, but there are obvious differences — one is festive family fun while the other involves a lot of people saying “fuck” and getting murdered. With both, though, it’s the resourcefulness of the outnumbered protagonist that keeps you watching. He’s gonna hit them with what?
Toy Soldiers — Die Hard… in a Boarding School!
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? Oh yeah! The inhabitants of a prep school for troubled boys are held hostage by Colombian terrorists.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? Billy Tepper (Sean Astin) is a prankster who has been kicked out of some of the finest prep schools in the country. Can the skills he normally uses for Dean-tormenting hijinks be used to save the day?
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? Andrew Divoff — a Venezuelan polyglot best known for the Wishmaster films — absolutely goes for it in certain scenes. By the end, his hair is doing a lot of the acting.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? Oh, it’s nowhere near as good. A group of rich kids in a boarding school are just a lot harder to give a shit about than peak-charisma Bruce Willis. Fuck ‘em, you know?
Under Siege — Die Hard… on a Battleship!
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? Absolutely! An embittered former CIA operative and team of mercenaries have taken over the USS Missouri and are planning to sell the Tomahawk missiles on board to the highest bidder.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice but to Persevere? Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) is a former Navy SEAL operator who has been demoted to ship’s cook after a mission he was leading went wrong. He’s armed only with kitchen knives and extensive training in various martial arts.
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Naddie? Tommy Lee Jones was four decades into a highly-regarded acting career at this point. He had been Oscar-nominated for JFK the year before, and would win for The Fugitive — directed, like Under Siege, by Andrew Davis — just a year later, before spending the rest of the 1990s in blockbuster after blockbuster. He spends this movie dressed as a cartoon biker, fiddling endlessly with various pairs of glasses, throwing meat to his friends and getting increasingly stressed out before getting stabbed through the top of the head. He keeps doing this thing where he’s being really fast and really slow at the same time. It’s fun! He’s accompanied by Gary Busey — himself Oscar-nominated for The Buddy Holly Story, although better-known these days for his erratic behavior following a brain injury — who spends a chunk of the movie in drag, having the most fun ever.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? Under Siege is no Die Hard, but it’s a career high point for Seagal (who, to be fair, is no Bruce Willis). The thing is, Ryback is unflappable and seemingly indestructible, without the vulnerability and humanity that makes John McClane such a great character. Nobody sits in front of Die Hard and goes, “You know what I love? His vulnerability!” but you miss it when it isn’t there.
Cliffhanger — Die Hard… Up a Mountain!
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? Yeah! A murderous gang of thieves have crashed in the Rocky Mountains and want to get to their stranded ill-gotten booty.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? Gabriel “Gabe” Walker (Sylvester Stallone) is a mountain rescue ranger and expert climber wracked with guilt after the death of his best friend’s girlfriend.
Proper Actor Really Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? John Lithgow is a terrific actor (Harvard, LAMDA, two Tonys, six Emmys) having an absolutely lovely time butchering a British accent and chewing the scenery. That scenery is the Rockies, so there’s a lot to chew. The accent though, woof. It’s better than the Australian one he does in Pitch Perfect 3, but not by much. He’s accompanied by a bunch of nasty pieces of work, including Cool Runnings’ Leon Robinson and Mac’s dad from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? It’s no Die Hard! While some of the stunts are still impressive nearly 30 years later, the liberties taken with both mountain climbing and physics just feel unnecessary. When John McClane walks over broken glass you wince, but when Gabe Walker breezily plummets to safety again and again it just isn’t the same.
Speed — Die Hard… on a Bus!
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? Totally! The brunt of the film takes place on a bus with a bomb attached to it, which will go off if the bus drops below 50 mph. If you’re reading this and haven’t seen Speed, stop reading this and watch Speed.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) is an off-duty member of the LAPD being targeted by a ruthless villain who will absolutely blow up the hostages. But a bus can’t go 50 forever!
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? Dennis Hopper had been in films for four decades by the time Speed came around, and was something of a legendary figure for his work both on-screen and off (“The cocaine problem in the United States is really because of me. There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider, it was everywhere”). He spends most of the film shouting, and gets beheaded at the end. It’s so, so good.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? Don’t write in, but Speed is even better than Die Hard. As terrific as the chemistry between John McClane and his walkie-talkie buddy Al Powell is, a never-better Reeves and a star-making turn from Sandra Bullock are just gold. Plus Alan Ruck saying “Oh darn” — incredible. Director Jan De Bont was the director of photography on Die Hard, and clearly learned a few lessons about sustained tension, effective comic relief and big-ass explosions.
Sudden Death — Die Hard… in a Hockey Stadium!
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? Oh yeah! The Pittsburgh Civic Arena is wired with explosives and will blow up at the end of the Penguins-Blackhawks game.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? Darren McCourd (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a former firefighter working as a fire marshal and racked with guilt about a girl he failed to save. His daughter is among the hostages.
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? Powers Boothe won an Emmy in 1980 for playing cult leader Jim Jones, and was one of the most “Hey, it’s that guy!” actors in Hollywood, often sporting a frankly glorious moustache. He’s clearly having a whale of a time in this movie, gliding about in a tuxedo and talking about “world peace, an end to bigotry and no more mini-malls.”
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? The one thing Die Hard doesn’t have, and Sudden Death does, is a fight against a woman dressed as a giant penguin. It’s fucking awesome and completely monstrous and, just like Die Hard’s fight scenes, feels exhausting and painful for everyone involved. There are movies where people barely feel it when they get punched in the face, and ones where it’s clear that fighting really, really hurts.
Daylight — Die Hard… in a Tunnel!
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? You bet! A series of explosions traps a group of people in a flooding tunnel.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? Kit Latura (Sylvester Stallone) is a former emergency services chief who quit to drive a cab after an incident where several of his colleagues died under his command. He goes into the tunnel voluntarily because he’s just that rad a dude.
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? Nope. Viggo Mortensen channels Die Hard’s Ellis a little bit as a POS yuppie dirtbag, but the main villain of the piece is physics.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? Despite being regularly lumped into the ‘Die Hard But X’ category, Daylight is more of a disaster movie than a Die Hard-a-like. There aren’t any hostages and, importantly, there isn’t a villain. It’s loads of fun, Daylight, but could totally benefit from a moustache-twirling board-treader hamming it up. Like, if every 10 minutes or so it cut to Charles Dance cackling, that could be incredible.
Executive Decision — Die Hard… on a Passenger Jet!
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! There’s a bomb on a plane, and a terrorist is going to blow it up! Shit! Plus the Eastern Seaboard is going to be poisoned or something! Double shit!
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell) is an intelligence specialist who is drafted into the situation halfway through a fancy dinner. Steven Seagal is meant to be in charge, but he dies, so it’s up to the tuxedoed Grant to save the day.
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? Not just a proper thespian, a knight of the realm. He is now, anyway. Sir David Suchet, best known for portraying Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, does his best but is stymied by spending the whole film in a short-sleeved shirt.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? It’s nowhere near as good as Die Hard. There’s something a bit off about the whole plane — the geography of it is incredibly confusing, and the extras don’t in any way seem to be acting how people would in their situation. It really makes you long for Nakatomi Plaza and the terrified hostages therein.
Air Force One — Die Hard… on the President’s Plane
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? Oh, 100 percent! The president’s plane is taken over by Kazakh terrorists in a bid to have a dangerous dictator freed.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) opts to stay on the plane rather than take an escape pod, sneaking around the cargo bay battlin’ baddies.
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? Gary Oldman spent a lot of the 1990s putting his Royal Shakespeare Company training to work playing villains — Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Fifth Element, Leon and so on — and this features him typically going for it, screaming half of his lines and perpetually coated in sweat.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? It’s an odd one to watch after the four years we’ve just had — a president with intelligence and integrity, yet it’s not a sci-fi movie — but it’s great fun, and second only to Speed and Die Hard itself in this list. However, there aren’t any jokes. McClane’s world-weary one-liners add so much to his character, and Ford is incapable of being hilarious. “Get off my plane!” is a great line, but it’s no “Yippee ki yay, motherfucker.”
White House Down — Die Hard… in the White House
Ticking Clock and Limited Location? You know it! Terrorists have taken over the White House, the dirtbags, and want to start a war. More takes place outdoors than you might sensibly expect.
Resourceful Lone Wolf Protagonist in Over His Head But With No Choice But to Persevere? John Cale (Channing Tatum) is an Afghanistan veteran and divorced dad working in the Capitol Police. His estranged daughter is among the hostages
Proper Actor Enjoying Himself as the Baddie? James Woods very much seems like a total asshole in real life, but he’s a pretty highly regarded actor, with two Emmys and two Oscar nods to his name. He plays it mostly straight, only doing a bit of scenery-chewing toward the end. Jason Clarke yells every line, though, and Jimmi Simpson puts his all into slinking about as a hacker. Plus, that guy who always seems to play a white supremacist plays a white supremacist.
And How Does It Compare to Die Hard? White House Down is extremely entertaining, but boy does it make you want to watch Die Hard. Tatum looks very good in a vest and does a fine line in McClane-esque outer-inner monologues, and Jamie Foxx makes a good president, but the whole thing would really benefit from some proper swearing. There’s shits aplenty, but just one fuck — Foxx, Woods and Tatum are all excellent at swearing, but some sort of “Land of the free, you fucking motherfucker!” silliness would give everyone a boost.
So, what have we learned here? There’s a balancing act Die Hard does magnificently, that few other movies manage to achieve. None of these films totally suck — a resourceful lone wolf in over his head is just intrinsically compelling — but Die Hard manages to be a movie that sucks in no ways at all. It has exactly the right amount of so many things — humor, tension, heroism, vulnerability — and a perfect charisma balance between hero and villain. It’s possibly an anticlimactic conclusion to reach after a thousand or so minutes of extremely loud research, but it just does everything it does really, really well.
Maybe the secret to making a masterpiece people still adore three decades later is just… being very good?