The release of Die Hard in 1988 inaugurated a new trend in Hollywood action movies in which a new breed of everyman action hero faced off against terrorists in confined location. Between the one-man army action flicks of the eighties and the superheroes of the noughts, the Die Hard model was the action formula of record.
One of the main reasons for this success was that the formula was familiar yet flexible. All you needed was a location (either a fixed structure like a building, or a mode of transportation), a vaguely everyman hero, and a villain intent on (mostly) financial gain. Although the heyday of these movies was over twenty years ago, their influence endures to this day. Let’s take a look back…
It’s Die Hard… in a boarding school! Toy Soldiers (Daniel Petrie, 1991)
“Great, the school gets taken over by terrorists and I’m still on pots and pans!”
Luis Cali (Andrew Divoff), the son of a Colombian cartel leader, discovers his father has been extradited to the US. He goes to a prestigious boarding school with a small army to kidnap the son of the judge who will be handling his father’s case. The teenager has already left, but after checking the school’s roll, Cali decides he can ransom the other teens, whose parents are various corporate and government bigwigs. With explosives and heavy machine guns, Cali creates a perimeter around the school and settles in for a siege. What Cali and the authorities haven’t factored in is the students themselves – specifically the faculty’s resident group of rejects and troublemakers, led by Billy Tepper (Sean Astin) and Joey Trotta (Wil Wheaton).
Going into this one, I was expecting something crazy and over-the-top, but Toy Soldiers plays it surprisingly straight. The terrorists are not softened in any way – the movie opens with civilians being executed on live TV – which gives the movie a real sense of tension. Divoff is very believable as the bad guy. He doesn’t really tip over into your typical action villain, which adds to the tone the filmmakers are going for.
Acting by all is really good. Sean Astin is terrific as the lead, and Louis Gossett Jr is also a standout as the tough-but-fair principal who still – against all reason – believes Astin and co. are more than just a bunch of losers.
It’s not a great movie (although not everyone here agrees), but Toy Soldiers is a solid mashup of the teen and action genres. Despite the slightly random combination of genres, Toy Soldiers holds together as one of the era’s more idiosyncratic entries in the ‘Die Hard on a Something’ cycle. The combination of the boys’ hijinx with the villains’ violence never feels contradictory, the performances are all solid and the tension racks up nicely as the movie heads into the home stretch.
It’s Die Hard… in Beverly Hills!: The Taking Of Beverly Hills (Sidney J. Furie, 1991)
“It’s only halftime, my friend… Halftime!”
Armed with a soft porn mullet, Ken Wahl plays Boomer Hayes, a star football player who is past his peak. Die Hard’s Robert Davi plays the bad guy, Robert ‘Bat’ Masterson, a mob-affiliated businessman who owns Boomer’s team. Wanting to increase his fortune, and desiring revenge against the Beverly Hills elites who continue to ignore him, Masterson has hired a team of ex-cops to stage a fake chemical spill which will force an evacuation of the affluent city – allowing Masterson’s minions to pillage their homes. Luxuriating in a candle-lit jacuzzi, Boomer is left behind when everyone else is evacuated. Going outside to figure out what is going on, he is forced into action hero mode when the bad guys realise they don’t have the place to themselves.
Boomer is an interesting twist on the everyman hero. Despite his physical prowess he is not proficient with weapons or fighting. He basically has to improvise his way out of trouble, which is intriguing. I wish they had made more of this – Boomer’s only idea is to make a couple of molotov cocktails.
About two minutes into The Taking Of Beverly Hills, something is off. The movie opens with an extremely long credits sequence showing the title location in all its sun-glazed glory. It feels like b-roll from the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts goes on a shopping spree. The thing with an action movie is that it has to take the premise – however unlikely – and make efforts to ensure the viewer doesn’t think too hard about the leaps it is taking. Ultimately, The Taking Of Beverly Hills is an interesting premise in search of a good movie. While the overall architecture is fine, the movie falls apart as soon as the villains initiate their scheme. The Taking Of Beverly Hills makes the mistake of having characters point out flaws in the villain’s plan. While there is a way to make this interesting, the scheme in this movie involves so many moving parts that it is already straining credibility when characters start questioning what is going on.
The soundtrack is one of the weirdest compilation of songs I’ve heard in a movie. Money by The Who, Epic by Faith No More — what do these songs have to do with anything? Janet Jackson’s Black Cat accompanies a car chase — the chase is cool, the song is cool — but they don’t work together at all. It just feels like the producers looked at all the other action movies with hit soundtracks and decided to follow suit, without taking into account what was appropriate for where.
While it is not terrible, The Taking Of Beverly Hills is a waste of an interesting premise and a prime candidate for a remake.
It’s Die Hard… on an airplane!: Passenger 57 (Kevin Hooks, 1992)
“How would you like your sirloin?”
International terrorist Charles Rane (Bruce Payne), nicknamed the ‘Rane of Terror’, is captured by the FBI in Miami and is put on a commercial aircraft to California where he will stand trial for various air hijackings and bombings. Unknown to authorities, Rane’s cohorts have infiltrated the aircraft. Unknown to them, the new VP of the airline’s counter-terrorism unit, John Cutter (Wesley Snipes) is also on the plane.
This movie is all about bad guy Charles Rane. Another in the long line of bad guys with British accents, Bruce Payne’s deadpan performance is fantastic. From his introduction killing his way out of an operating theatre, to his creepy interactions with the female lead (“No Marti, I’m going to kill you during!”), Rayne stakes his claim as the most depraved action movie villain since Andy Robinson’s Scorpio from Dirty Harry. He even makes ordering a steak sound evil.
And he is more than matched by Wesley Snipes. In his first role as action hero, Snipes is a natural. Charismatic, tough, and physically dynamic, Snipes’ onscreen presence would not be this well served until Blade six years later.
A great vehicle for Snipes, Passenger 57 is a strong entry in the ‘Die Hard-on-a-something’ trend, mostly on the performances of its lead hero and villain. The action is fine, but there are times where it feels like there’s almost not enough movie for them. Passenger 57 does commit a cardinal sin of Die Hard rip-offs: taking the action off the plane. It all comes together during the slam bang finale, with Cutter and Rane battling each other through the passenger cabin.
Overall, Passenger 57 is a solid action movie elevated by a pair of strong performances. It’s not the best of the ‘Die Hard on a plane’ movies, but on its own terms, it’s a good time.
It’s Die Hard… on a battleship!: Under Siege (Andrew Davis, 1992)
“Welcome to the revolution!”
Steven Seagal had been on an upswing since his starring debut in Andrew Davis’ 1988 cop thriller Above The Law. His follow-ups were also hits, and consolidated Seagal’s position as a rising action star. As everyone knows, Under Siege was the movie that put Seagal in the big time.
Seagal plays Casey Ryback, a former Navy Seal who has been bumped down to ship cook after (justifiably) punching out his commanding officer. Ryback runs the kitchen on the USS Missouri, a battleship which is about to be decommissioned. Aside from asshole Commander Krill (Gary Busey) breathing down his neck, life is pretty routine for Ryback. That is until ex-CIA nutjob William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) takes over the ship along with Krill and his gang of former black-ops agents kill the captain and take over the ship. With the aid of a Playboy Playmate (Erika Eleniak), a few sailors and veterans, Ryback is forced back into action to prevent the terrorists from making Honolulu glow in the dark.
Directed by Davis (who would go on to direct The Fugitive the following year), Under Siege is a solid action picture lifted by some strong performances. Seagal is in his element (and out for justice) as Ryback, his natural reserve a strong contrast to the villains.
And what fine villains they are. Jones is awesome as Strannix, swinging wildly between cold pro and ranting egomaniac with no space in between. Gary Busey is off the planet as Commander Krill. Whether it is dancing about in drag, laughing while Strannix runs off a list of demands, or just sneering, Busey is just perfect.
If there is a flaw to Under Siege, it is in the lack of big obstacles between our hero and his goal. Seagal has always been a superman in his movies, but Under Siege suffers a bit from having no big setbacks for Ryback to overcome – there’s no scene where he gets trapped below decks, is seriously injured or has to fight someone of comparable skill. The surprising thing about re-watching Under Siege is how quickly Ryback runs through Strannix’s team. And while Jones and Busey make for a great double act, they are never a match for Seagal. It’s surprising that Strannix’s group did not include a musclebound heavy or martial artist to back him up (ala Karl in Die Hard). What this movie needed was an anti-Ryback for our hero to really test his mettle against.
This aside, Under Siege remains a fun watch and an essential text in the Seagal/Die Hard-on-a-something canon.
It’s Die Hard… on a mountain!: Cliffhanger (Renny Harlin, 1993)
“Season’s over asshole!”
Sylvester Stallone stars as Gabe Walker, a rescue ranger and expert mountain climber. Following a tragic climbing accident in which he failed to rescue his best friend Hal’s (Michael Rooker) girlfriend, he has decided to leave the mountain behind. When the rangers receive a distress call, he is drawn into one last rescue mission.
A gang of criminals led by Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) attempt to steal $100 million dollars from a US Treasury airplane in flight. Their daring gambit backfires, and the three suitcases of cash are scattered across the mountain. Crash-landing on the side of the mountain, these bad ‘uns radio for assistance. Capturing Gabe and Hal, they force our heroes to help them find the cases of cash. Gabe manages to escape and the movie turns into a race against time as Stallone tries find the loot before the bad guys do.
Directed by Die Hard 2’s Renny Harlin, the movie makes attempts to present Gabe as an everyman, but eventually gives up that pretense in favor of doing cool stuff like impaling villains on stalactites, using villains as snowboards and crushing them with helicopters. Harlin is not the most restrained filmmaker around, but this kind of heightened scenario works for his aesthetic. Stallone is a good lead, Rooker gets some badass moments and Rex Linn plays the cinema’s least effective henchman. If anyone takes the acting cake, it’s John Lithgow.
Lithgow has a great time stealing some poor British thespian’s job as the villain. Lithgow’s Qualen is from the Rayne-Strannix school of terrorist psychos. Paired Linn’s traitorous Treasury agent Travers, Qualen is one of the more OTT villains in the Die Hard on a something cycle. Pontificating like a cross between a British Commander from the Raj and a kids’ soccer coach. It’s amazing.
Notable for its amazing stunts and Lithgow’s cartoonish accent, Cliffhanger is a solid variation on the Die Hard template and one of Stallone’s best latter-day showcases.
It’s Die Hard… on a bus!: Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
“Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric.”
The second in Keanu Reeve’s quadrilogy of action classics, Speed is one of the few ‘Die Hard on a…’ movies to emerge from the original’s shadow as its own film. One of the great 90s action films, Speed remains a classic of the genre. Written by Graham Yost – with a major script polish from an uncredited Joss Whedon, Speed embodies its title.
This movie moves like a bullet – ironic, considering it takes place on a bus – but never loses track of the characters at its heart. Keanu Reeves will never make anyone’s list of ‘great’ actors, but he is perfectly cast as good cop Jack Traven. In her second major role, Sandra Bullock is the movie’s anchor as passenger-turned-driver Annie Porter, providing the humanity and humor that grounds the premise and makes the peril feel real. And in the crazy corner, Dennis Hopper chews all the scenery as psycho ex-cop-turned-bomber Howard Payne. While the character is a cartoon, Hopper’s presence charges the character with a dangerous, unpredictable energy. This movie also finds time for Jeff Daniels as Traven’s friend and partner Harry Temple.
Originally, Ed Harris was in line to play the role, when the script revealed that Harry was the real villain. Sadly script re-writes removed this twist, meaning Daniels remains on the side of the angels, No matter. The movie still rocks, and Daniels’ death packs a real impact. Like Bullock, he helps to provide the humanity that Reeves cannot.
Some critics, including screenwriter Graham Yost, have criticised Speed’s third act – Traven chasing Payne into the subway – as a set piece too far. I’ve never had a problem with it, mainly because the characters – particularly Bullock – are so appealing. Speed’s focus on its protagonists acts as a prime example of how strong character-building can help paper over narrative excesses (although it feels completely natural to me: trains = speed. Geddit?).
To cut to the chase, Speed is a stone cold classic. If you haven’t watched it yet, you are in for a ride.
It’s Die Hard… on a train!: Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (Geoff Murphy, 1995)
“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Now a civilian, Casey Ryback is forced back into action when a group of cyber-terrorists hijack the train he is travelling on with his niece (Katherine Heigl). Now he has to race against time before the terrorists’ mastermind gains control over a satellite with literacy earth-shattering capabilities.
Man, this movie is kind of awesome. I may actually like it more than the original. Re-watching it recently was a revelation. About forty minutes in, it was like something finally clicked. Now I got what was great about Seagal. What I really like is that Ryback’s back is really against the wall in this one. In the original, there was no real sense that he could lose. Here, he’s constantly having to jump through hoops and it’s awesome because it means Seagal has to do even more badass things to get out of danger.
Eric Bogosian and Everett McGill are an interesting pair of villains — Bogosian is hilariously sarcastic and borderline orgasmic as the nerdy computer genius (imagine GoldenEye’s Boris, only with a better wardrobe), while McGill is a solid straight man. They’re no Jones and Busey, but they are good, and backed up by some interesting, though under-utilised hench-persons. One of these goons is played by Peter Greene, one of ’90s movies’ great scumbags, who plays a sadistic gunman who was previously trained by Ryback. I wish Ryback had a fight with the female mercenary — they seemed to be setting her up to be a real threat, but then she fades into the background.
As Ryback’s sidekick Bobby Zachs, Morris Chestnut veers dangerously close to ‘annoying sidekick’ territory, but ends up being rather good – he contributes to the villains’ demise in a more substantial way than Erika Eleniak did in the original movie. His conversation to the helicopter pilot after he’s dispatched the female merc is the biggest laugh in the movie.
If there is one quibble I have with this movie, it is the same one I have with every Seagal movie. Many of the supporting characters seem to exist solely to act as hype men for Ryback. This seems to affect almost every character at least once – Chestnut’s Bobby Zachs is the biggest culprit, but even McGill and Green’s characters get in on the compliments. There are some really wedged-in moments where other characters talk about how heroic and badass Seagal is. A few comments like this are fine (John Wick is a recent example of how well this trope can work) but this happens a few too many times. Actions speak louder than words, and on that count Ryback is loud enough by himself.
One other weird aspect to the movie is the score. Now, I love Basil Poledouris — Conan The Barbarian, The Hunt For Red October, and RoboCop are fantastic. However, I find his score for this movie really overbearing — whenever Seagal is onscreen this ‘heroic’ theme starts blaring and it just comes off as too big for the scene. It feels more suitable for a fantasy movie or a superhero flick.
Those things aside, this movie wound up being a real treat. It moves well, it gets more exciting as it goes along, and the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of the central location. It does lack the flavour of the original – while Bogosian and McGill are good villains, they lack that certain flair that Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey had. They get a few weird beats — Bogosian getting ‘excited’ during the eye torture scene; McGill spraying mace in his mouth — but they needed a few more touches of ‘crazy’ to really land. The climax features plenty of pyrotechnics, but Bogosian doesn’t get a good death. It’s not bad, but it comes off as a little under-powered. You expect Ryback to beat this great brain with some kind of clever trick — instead he just gets shot in the chest. Of course, all of this is redeemed by Ryback running out of the train as it flies off a bridge. This bears repeating — Steven Seagal outruns a train. Awesome.
One of the real surprises of this sub-genre, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory is a great sequel and far from the bomb it is made out to be. On this evidence, Under Siege 3 was a real missed opportunity. Instead we got The Glimmer Man and Fire Down Below.
It’s Die Hard… in a sports stadium!: Sudden Death (Peter Hyams, 1995)
“Go ahead. Dead heroes get the best funerals.”
After a tragic accident, fireman Darren McCord (JCVD) is demoted to a fire marshall at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. McCord finds himself in a race against time after rogue CIA agent Joshua Foss (Powers Booth) kidnaps the vice president and rigs the arena with explosives during the Stanley Cup final.
Another fun ride, this one starts out okay, and then proceeds to get more exciting as it goes along – a rare trick that most action movies cannot do. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it a few times in this article but I cannot bring it up enough – so many movies, not just action movies, have a real problem keeping things moving as they head into the home stretch. Not so with this one.
Director Peter Hyams has made some fun movies, but there is always something about the execution that feels a little… mundane? Pedestrian? Just competent? Nothing against the guy, but going into a Hyams movie I always have a little trepidation. But this one has a scene where JCVD fights a kickboxing assassin in a mascot costume, so he gets a free pass.
On the acting front, this movie is pretty solid. JCVD is a suitably put-upon lead. While it took another decade for him to really find his footing acting-wise, Van Damme is pretty good here. As the snarky CIA villain, Powers Boothe is deliciously odious. A spiritual brother to William Strannix, Joshua Foss is a more urbane psycho who enjoys toying with his prey. Boothe always has a ball when he plays a bad guy, and his baleful energy really powers the movie.
As I mentioned, the film is notable for the terrific throw down between JCVD and a villainess disguised as the team mascot – a ridiculous idea boosted by a terrific execution. The rest of the action is pretty solid, but things really pick up as the movie (and the hockey game) goes into overtime. The finale, involving a lot of dangling off high places, is great. The villain’s demise is suitably over the top, although the edge is blunted by the terrible compositing of the helicopter in the stadium (points for the beat where Boothe and JCVD eyeball each other as the helicopter makes its final descent into the stadium).
A real surprise, Sudden Death is one of the better Die Hard rip-offs. If you’re in the mood for a Die Hard movie, you could do far worse than this. Just wait until I get to Speed 2…
It’s Die Hard… on another airplane!: Executive Decision (Stuart Baird, 1996)
“Who are you?”
A 747 passenger airliner has been hijacked and is heading for Washington DC, armed with enough DZ-5 nerve gas to wipe out everyone on the Eastern seaboard. It is up to Lt. Colonel Austin Travis (Steven Seagal) and Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell), an intelligence consultant, to deactivate the bomb and retake the plane. But then things get complicated…
This one surprised me when I first saw it, and it continues to surprise me with how good it is. It’s rare to see a genuinely intelligent action movie that throws out the rule book and doesn’t anchor itself to the same plot and character beats. The Jack Ryan movies come to mind, as do the (first three) Bournes, and Die Hard, but overall these movies are a fairly rare breed.
This movie is filled with so many neat spins on the formula. For one, it starts as a stereotypical buddy movie, pairing a nerd, Grant, and a special forces soldier, Travis, to rescue the plane full of hostages held by middle eastern terrorist Nagi Hassan (David Suchet, bizarre casting but effective). And then the filmmakers start screwing with the audience’s expectations – starting with Travis’ demise at the end of act one. At this point, you would expect the movie to hew closer to the Die Hard template by having Russell turn into a nerdy version of John McClane. But the movie takes another turn and the movie becomes an ensemble thriller with Grant, ARPA engineer Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt), flight attendant Jean (Halle Berry) and the remaining members of Travis’ team working together to find Hassan’s bomb and locate the triggerman hiding among the passengers.
Even more interesting is that Grant, the movie’s main lead, does not go through the stereotypical arc from stuffy intellectual to man of action. His character, and his responses to the situations he finds himself in, remain consistent. He uses his brain, assesses each situation, and takes the steps to solve each problem without causing too much collateral damage to the plane or passengers. Technically, he doesn’t even kill anyone. This focus on brain over brawn extends to the entire movie. While there are moments of action, Executive Decision’s narrative is powered by suspense. Every time Travis’ team is ready to engage the terrorists, Grant discovers some new wrinkle which throws their plan into disarray. The whole team then has to think their way out of it.
The cast are all terrific. Russell is an empathetic, winning lead. Seagal takes a rare blow to his ego to provide one of the movie’s more shocking twists. John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Joe Morton and BD Wong are all great as the rescue team, and Halle Berry is good as Jean, the whip smart flight attendant. The biggest surprise is David Suchet. He proves to be an effective villain, providing a terrifically understated sense of menace – made all the more horrific when he explodes.
Directed by the great editor Stuart Baird, Executive Decision is a fine piece of entertainment which is far more sophisticated than its plot description implies.
It’s Die Hard… in Alcatraz!: The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996)
“Let’s go find some rockets!”
The movie that signalled the arrival of Michael Bay as an action movie heavy hitter, The Rock might still be the best example of his bellicose talents.
Nicholas Cage stars as Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical weapons and bomb disposal expert who is forced into hero mode when a group of renegade Marines led by General Hummel (Ed Harris) hijack a batch of deadly VX gas and take over Alcatraz prison. They threaten to release the gas unless $100 million is paid to the families of the men who died in black op missions under Hummel’s command. Because Alcatraz has been closed for so long, none of the facility’s wardens or guards are around to provide intel on how to break into the prison. Their only option is the one man who managed to escape the Rock and live to tell the tale: John Mason (Sean Connery). After the Seal Team they accompany is ambushed by Hummel’s men, Goodspeed and Mason are forced to stop Hummel by themselves.
Maybe I’m turning into a grumpy old man, but there are parts of The Rock which drive me up the wall. Most of it has to do with the editing and wall-to-wall music. The car chase in San Francisco is a major culprit – the cutting is so haphazard and disorganized that the scene feels punishing rather than propulsive. Hans Zimmer and Nick Glennie-Smith’s score is all bombast all the time. It never lets up, even during the scene where Hummel stands at his wife’s grave and tells her what he is about to do. It’s a quiet, restrained scene, well acted by Ed Harris and the rain – at least it would be, if Zimmer and co. weren’t so obsessed with telling the viewer that THIS IS A HI-OCTANE NON-STOP ADRENALINE THRILL RIDE.
And yet, somehow The Rock works. The cast are all on good form – particularly Harris, who invests Hummel with a conviction and empathy the rest of the movie can’t hope to match. In fact, of all the villains in this feature, Hummel is probably the most sympathetic, and has a genuinely understandable motivation. If this movie had been directed by someone with more developed story-telling abilities (John McTiernan, say), more might have been made of this, but as is, he is the most recognizably human element of this movie.
Connery and Cage make for a great double act, and it is a pity that Jerry Bruckheimer never had the idea to reteam these characters in a sequel – it would have been nice to have another adventure or three with these two buttting heads and taking names.
Overlooking the Bayhem of it all, The Rock remains a fun ride anchored by one of the more interesting variations on the Die Hard formula, a pair of odd couple heroes and a memorable nemesis.
It’s Die Hard… on a prison plane!: Con Air (Simon West, 1997)
“Put the bunny back in the box…”
I love this movie. Everyone loves this movie. Even people who think it’s garbage love this movie. Any way you slice it, Con Air is a top flight piece of entertainment. After 20 years, it remains an iconic example of ’90s action cinema and one of the most entertaining action movies ever made.
Nicholas Cage stars as Cameron Poe, a US Army Ranger jailed after he kills a drunken thug who attacked him on the day he got home from the service. Leaving his pregnant wife to struggle on by herself, Poe has patiently waited for his release date, so he can finally meet his daughter. On the day he is going home, the prison transport plane he is flying on is hijacked by a gang of supermax prisoners led by Cyrus ‘the Virus’ Grissom (John Malkovich).
Enough words have been devoted to the awesomeness which is Con Air. The eclectic cast and Simon West’s gonzo direction are the stars here.The score by Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin is constantly cranking, the editing out-Bays Michael Bay, and the whole movie looks and feels like an awesome music video montage, except they didn’t cut out the in-between bits. It’s great.
It’s Die Hard… on the U.S. President’s Plane!: Air Force One (Wolfgang Petersen, 1997)
“Get off my plane!”
After a joint US-Russian mission unseats the dictator of Kazakhstan, a group of his supporters, led by Egor Korshunov (Gary Oldman), hijack Air Force One and demand their leader’s return. What they don’t count on is President James Marshall (Harrison Ford), who will do whatever it takes to get them off his plane.
Air Force One is the quiet, dignified yin to the bombastic yang of Con Air, released earlier that summer. And unlike most of the movies on this list, Air Force One echoes Die Hard’s sense of geography and movement.
Air Force One marks one of the last of a dying breed: the completely straight action drama. In contrast to the trend’s more jocular tone, there is no irony or flippancy here. In style and tone Air Force One stood out from the increasingly frenetic style promoted by the likes of Michael Bay. That quality of simple craftsmanship makes it timeless in a way that some of the more stylishly contemporary films have not.
Harrison Ford is the movie’s secret weapon. Ever since Han Solo, he’s brought that special everyman quality to all of his characters. That affability is a major asset for this movie – while other people could have played the president, it’s hard to imagine anyone else believably making the transition from president to action hero.
It helps that he is pitched against one of the strongest antagonists of the nineties. Gary Oldman takes his Leon schtick and dials it back as Korshunov. Like The Rock’s General Hummel, he is a villain with a cause, but unlike Hummel, he is completely dedicated to it.
In many respects, Air Force One marks the end of the ‘Die Hard on a something’ trend of the ’90s. Appropriately, it is one of the best. Some of it has aged (the CGI plane crash at the end is terrible) and the overly-earnest tone does lean toward parody at times, but overall this is one of the best Die Hard clones out there, and a strong bookend to the original cycle.
It’s Die Hard… on a cruise ship!: Speed 2: Cruise Control (Jan de Bont, 1997)
“Come back, you’re my hostage!”
Having broken up with Jack Traven, Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) and her new boyfriend Alex (Jason Patric) go on a Caribbean cruise. Sadly, a mad terrorist has taken control of the ship is holding the passengers for ransom. There’s a bit more to it, but it’s boring.
Rarely has a movie’s title been more brutally honest about the kind of movie it is – this movie is on cruise control from minute one. The opening sequence is supposed to endear our heroes to us. Instead it acts as the dramatic equivalent of a bullet to the knee. Alex is a poor replacement for Keanu Reeves’s Jack — he is introduced as a lunatic risk taker who has lied to Sandra Bullock’s Annie about the fact that a lunatic risk taker. And then the cruise is his apology for lying. Classy.
The premise for this movie was inspired by a dream the director had about a cruise liner ramming into an island. With the ending in mind, the filmmakers worked backwards to come up with a reason for why a cruise liner would plow through a town. Everything about this movie is depressing. The characters you liked in the original movie have turned into idiots, the new villain makes no sense, and all the natural tension of the original’s premise is missing.
It’s Die Hard… in Alcatraz again!: Half Past Dead (Don Michael Paul, 2002)
“I want the American dream Frank – and I’m gonna get it.”
Russian criminal Sasha (Steven Seagal) and his buddy Nick (Ja Rule) are arrested and wind up incarcerated at the re-opened Alcatraz prison. Their stint gets harder when a group of gunmen led by rogue Fed Donny Johnson (Morris Chestnut) arrive, intent on interrogating a death row inmate who stole 200 million dollars worth of gold.
Steven Seagal + Alcatraz. It should be a perfect marriage. Instead, it’s a drunken one night stand with an awkward morning after.
Terribly written and directed by Don Michael Paul, Half Past Dead is easily one of the worst movies in the Die Hard-on-a-something cycle. The action sequences look like a Universal Studios stunt show, with obvious and poor choreography – Seagal is either offscreen, or moving extremely slowly (until the climax, which he literally sits out).
This movie is a time capsule of late nineties cliches, from the villains’ Matrix-style bodysuits and trenchcoats, to the John Woo double-gunning, to the slo-mo and speed-ramping. All of these things would be fine if the movie was well-directed, but Paul fumbles every element so badly that the whole package comes off as slipshod and incoherent. To top it all off, the movie has one of the most obnoxious soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time – the movie is just wall-to-wall hip-hop and rap metal. It never feels appropriate to the scenes.
In the lead, Seagal might as well be the invisible man. He is offscreen for long sections, and when he is on-screen, he is so understated he never registers.
Rapper Ja Rule is also in this movie, playing Seagal’s friend and fellow prisoner. His performance is chiefly notable for a scene in which he tries to teach Seagal how to correctly pronounce ‘Aiight’.
Seagal’s old Under Siege 2 castmate Morris Chestnut plays the villain, another former government employee out to make some money. Apart from treating everybody like shit (his dressing down of the Supreme Court judge is particularly odious), he does not get a lot to do, and comes off completely incompetent when it comes to locating and defeating our slow and bulky hero.
At 98 minutes, the movie feels way too long. Scenes meander, pointless plot twists are introduced, and at no point are there any sense of stakes. A sad end to Seagal’s theatrical career, and a complete waste of viewing time.
It’s Die Hard… in the White House!: Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013)
“Let’s play a game of fuck-off. You first.”
Gerard Butler plays secret service agent Mike Banning. Disgraced after an incident where the First Lady died, he has taken a desk job and is seemingly out of the game. When a group of terrorists take over the White House, he jumps back into action to save the president and prevent the villains from triggering World War 3.
Watching this movie is like finding an unreleased action movie from 1987 hidden on the back shelf of an old video store.
Olympus’s opening gambit is jaw-dropping. Director Antoine Fuqua has a tendency to go overboard with the intensity of his action scenes, but for once he has found the perfect channel for his excesses.The assault on the White House is amazing for how brutal and ferocious it is. For a few minutes, the movie turns into a full-on war movie. As with all of Antoine Fuqua’s movies, the movie manages to be as self-serious as it is insanely violent. Where that was a drag on previous Fuqua jaunts (Tears Of The Sun, King Arthur), this adds to the movie’s retro charm. The movie is unapologetic about what kind of movie it is, and it makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
Olympus Has Fallen is by no means a masterpiece. There are a few areas where it could have spruced things up a bit. The opening assault is so amazing that the action inside the White House kinda suffers. The writers introduce a bit of additional peril with the President’s son trapped in the White House, but that problem is solved in about 10 minutes. While entertaining, the movie hews to the Die Hard template, but it does not introduce any element that is unique to itself.
What this movie also makes clear is that Gerard Butler is born to shoot people in the face and/or stab them through the head. It’s been pretty obvious since 300 that Butler was an action star in waiting, but it feels like only since this movie that he seems to have figured out his niche – stabbing bad ‘uns in the head. Hopefully, with the success of Olympus and its sequel, Butler throws out the romcoms and grabs every script where he can brandish a big knife and growl something about being thirsty.
Taken on its own terms, or as a throwback to the Die Hard formula and the movies of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Olympus Has Fallen is one of the most unapologetically entertaining action flicks of recent years.
It’s Die Hard… in the White House again!: White House Down (Roland Emmerich, 2013)
“Martin, as the President of the United States, this comes with the full weight, power and authority of my office. Fuck you.”
John Cale (Channing Tatum) takes his estranged daughter Emily (Joey King) to the White House. He has a job interview with the secret Service, and Emily is a big fan of the current president James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Sadly, it also falls on the day that dark forces led by Martin Walker (James Woods), the rogue head of the Secret Service Presidential Detail. Partnered with the president, John must figure what’s going on and save the day…
Watching this movie is like going back to that old video store and finding an unreleased action movie from 1996 next to the one from 1987. Controversial statement: Speed aside, I would argue that this movie has a strong case for being one of the best, if not the best, Die Hard ripoff ever made.
The script (by Zodiac scribe James Vanderbilt) does a good job of renovating the Die Hard formula without ripping it off outright. The characters all have arcs, and plausible motivations (a rarity in Emmerich’s movies). The movie is funny but not to the detriment of the threat the characters face. And it ends with a girl holding off an airstrike by literally waving the American flag (a gambit so brazen that the theatre I was in roared with laughter).
The movie’s political leanings are as subtle as the ‘satire’ in The Purge movies. Usually action movies feature a variety of right wing nightmares — Arab terrorists, South American cartels, dastardly upper-class Brits. Here we get a selection of liberal boogeymen: war hawks, rogue government employees and sovereign citizen nut jobs.
Considering who directed this movie, I’m amazed at how good every element is. The cast are all terrific. Channing Tatum is great as the put-upon hero, and Jamie Foxx is effective as the idealistic president. James Woods is terrific as the villain: like The Rock’s General Hummel, he has a completely understandable motivation for betraying the government he swore to protect.
But the best character is Tatum’s daughter, played by Joey King. Unlike the president’s son in Olympus, she’s not a plot device, but a fully developed member of the cast, and manages to contribute to the villain’s downfall. King plays it all completely straight, and avoids turning her role into the annoying cliche so many action movies are saddled with.
Overall, White House Down is a terrific throwback that deserves far more love.