Every time a movie comes out with a novel concept that makes a big splash and resonates with a lot of people, the copycats and pale imitations are sure to follow. After Pulp Fiction came out, we got a slew of crime movies that were trying to be complex and nonlinear and failed miserably. After Guardians of the Galaxy came out, every summer blockbuster started trying to be as funny and mostly failing miserably. And ever since Die Hard came out, we’ve had a steady stream of action movies in which a plucky hero takes on a band of terrorists who have taken over a confined space (skyscraper, plane, boat, hockey stadium, whatever it may be). The difference is that there have been so many “Die Hard on a…” movies, though, that there are actually some really good ones. Here are the 10 best to welcome to the party!
10. Con Air – “Die Hard on a prison plane”
You know that an action movie starring Nicolas Cage is always going to be dumb fun. It’s not going to take itself too seriously – it’ll just be madcap and insane. In this one, he ends up on a plane full of prisoners that has been taken over. Instead of being framed like most of the action movie heroes that end up in prison, Cage’s lead character Cameron Poe is locked up for something far more heroic – he accidentally killed a drunk guy while protecting his pregnant wife. The supporting cast around Cage is brilliant, too. Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi and John Cusack and John Malkovich and Ving Rhames are all in this movie with him. And the character of Pinball in this movie is played by the legendary standup comic Dave Chappelle, who is not known for playing by the rules. He frequently offends people with his joke and refuses to apologize for them. He does things his own way. So, it should come as no surprise that he improvised most of the dialogue in this movie to infuse his character with a strong sense of humor. It’s just an all round great movie that is so much fun.
9. Passenger 57 – “Die Hard on a plane”
The greatest thing about this movie is the line, “Always bet on black.” Wesley Snipes says it as he takes on the terrorists who have hijacked a plane he’s on. This was a pre-9/11 airplane takeover movie, so it’s less terrifying and paranoid and political than the other action movies about an airplane takeover that we’ve seen in the years since 2001. Actually, fun fact: this movie was scheduled to air on Starz on the night of September 11, 2001, but obviously after al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked some planes for their attacks, they pulled the movie from broadcast. The movie was originally written as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone to star in, but he turned it down, which is probably for the best, because now that it’s a Wesley Snipes movie and John Cutter became one of his best known characters, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the lead role. This was the movie that made Wesley Snipes an action movie star. Without it, we wouldn’t have had all the other awesome action movies that he went on to star in. In fact, it could even be argued that he was never in a movie as good as this one.
8. Sudden Death – “Die Hard in a hockey stadium”
It might not seem like a great idea to do an action movie about a former fireman played by Jean Claude Van Damme who takes on the terrorists that have held the Vice President and a bunch of other people hostage in a hockey stadium during the seventh game of the NHL Stanley Cup finals. And let’s be honest, it’s not a great idea. No matter which way you make it or who’s involved, that’s never going to be a masterpiece. It’s called Sudden Death, for God’s sake – it almost seems as if they decided a hockey term would be a good title for an action movie and then built a story about a hockey stadium around it. But still, it’s Jean Claude Van Damme. He doesn’t just kick people’s asses for movies – he could do it in real life. He’s not Marlon Brando or Kirk Douglas – he’s just a guy who knows martial arts and has leading man charisma. But that’s all he needs to be to make a fun action movie. That’s just what this is. No one’s trying to make this some kind of work of cinematic genius. It’s just a hockey action movie. You get what it says on the tin.
7. Under Siege – “Die Hard on a Navy ship”
On the final voyage of a U.S. Navy ship on its way to California, where it is set to be decommissioned by George H.W. Bush, who was the President at the time (he appeared in archive footage only – they didn’t get the sitting President to cameo in a Steven Seagal action movie), a group of mercenaries led by Tommy Lee Jones take everybody hostage, leaving them all to rely on Navy SEAL turned chef Casey Ryback to save the day. The character has been praised as a staple of the action movie genre, but also criticized for being invincible and able to defeat any enemy. Eric Lichtenfeld writes, “Ryback…is the ultimate warrior. As the action genre tends toward hyperbole, Ryback is an amalgam of everything that signifies Ultimate Warrior status, even more than Riggs had been in Lethal Weapon. It is fitting then, that…Ryback’s costuming progresses from a white cook’s uniform…to an olive tank top, to the all black garb that merges Ryback with the ship, and with which Seagal came to be identified.” It is true that Seagal would go on to become best known for his role as the John McClane copycat Casey Ryback, and would play versions of Ryback for the rest of his career.
6. Executive Decision – “Die Hard on another plane”
Executive Decision is like “Die Hard on a plane.” There appears to have been a lot of “Die Hard on a plane” movies over the years. It’s the story of a terrorist siege of an airliner that is thwarted by a John McClane imitation in the form of U.S. Army Intelligence officer David Grant, played by action movie legend Kurt Russell. This is also different in that Russell is joined by another action movie legend, Steven Seagal, whose military character Lt. Colonel Austin Travis is less reluctant than the McClane. Unfortunately, he – SPOILER ALERT! – dies very quickly, leaving it all up to Kurt Russell’s intelligence analyst to save the day on his own. The critical consensus of this movie was basically that it was not a good movie, but it was a lot of stupid fun. Leonard Maltin described it as “a tense, inventive thriller,” but added that it needed closer attention paid to the editing. Variety’s review read, “The picture’s logic may be a bit fast and loose, but its action and excitement quotient is top notch,” while film critic laureate Roger Ebert called it “a gloriously goofy mess of a movie” in his three out of four stars review.
5. The Rock – “Die Hard on an island”
Okay, “Die Hard on an island” sounds pretty tenuous, but that’s what this is. Terrorists led by Ed Harris take over Alcatraz Island with the intention of unleashing a deadly nerve agent on the city of San Francisco. Here, Nicolas Cage plays the John McClane character, who has been brilliantly named Stanley Goodspeed, and he’s paired up with a wise-ass S.A.S. captain played by the great Sean Connery. It was directed by Michael Bay and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, so you just know going in that it’s going to be a gleefully absurd action bonanza. Some of the many uncredited script rewrites came from masters of dialogue, like Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, and somehow the movie’s dialogue still remained delightfully ridiculous. In one scene, Goodspeed confronts one of the terrorists, Captain Darrow, and asks him, “Listen, I think we got off on the wrong foot. Stan Goodspeed, FBI. Uh, let’s talk music. Do you like the Elton John song ‘Rocket Man?’” Darrow replies, “I don’t like soft-ass shit!” Then Goodspeed says, “Oh, oh, you don’t. Okay. Well, I only bring it up because, uh…it’s you. You’re the rocket man!” before firing Darrow out the window with a rocket. Classic!
4. Die Hard 2: Die Harder – “Die Hard in an airport”
Okay, so this one doesn’t really count, since it literally is Die Hard, but it’s not really Die Hard. It’s the sequel, and it still fits the bill of a “Die Hard on a…” rip-off in that it follows the same basic plot and it has a John McClane character in the lead role (who just happens to be the actual John McClane). In the first movie, McClane flies out to Los Angeles to see his wife at her office Christmas party and maybe work through some of their issues, only for the building to be taken over by terrorists. This time around, he goes to pick her up at the airport and maybe work through some more of their issues, only for the airport to be taken over by terrorists. So, it’s basically the same thing all over again. In theory, it should suck, but it doesn’t. As an action movie, it’s awesome. And John McClane is still John McClane, unlike the invincible bastardization we’ve been treated to in the later sequels. The self-aware jokes help to make the sequel more fun and ironic. If McClane says to himself, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” then we’re more likely to have a good time than simply roll our eyes and groan.
3. Air Force One – “Die Hard on the President’s plane”
“Get off my plane!” Harrison Ford was originally offered the role of the real John McClane in the original Die Hard movie, but he turned it down. Little did he know that it would become so iconic that less than a decade later, he would be starring in a rip-off of its plot and lead character. In this one, Ford plays U.S. President James Marshall, who fought in Vietnam and received a Medal of Honor for his service. Suffice to say, when terrorists hijack his plane, he’s prepared to take them on. Gary Oldman gets props for his portrayal of the main villain in the movie, too. He would be frightful and menacing in character while the cameras were rolling, but as soon as director Wolfgang Petersen would call “cut,” he would go right back to being sweet and lovable. This led all the crew members to dub the set “Air Force Fun.” Not since the original Die Hard itself had the villain been so engaging and iconic. Hans Gruber will always be the greatest action movie villain in film history, but Ivan Korshunov, Oldman’s Russian Radek loyalist character who led the siege of the President’s plane, comes very close.
2. Olympus Has Fallen – “Die Hard in the White House”
In 2013, two movies with the premise of “Die Hard in the White House” were released. The first, Olympus Has Fallen, starred Gerard Butler as top Secret Service agent Mike Banning and Aaron Eckhart as President Benjamin Asher and saw a foreign terrorist threat taking over the White House, while the second, White House Down, starred Channing Tatum as Secret Service wannabe John Cale (no one stretched any muscles coming up with that name, did they?) and Jamie Foxx as President James Sawyer and saw a band of domestic terrorists taking over the White House. The two movies competed to get their casting and shooting finished – in the end, Olympus Has Fallen won. Not only did it make more of a profit at the box office, but it’s also just a better movie. It’s a much better movie. White House Down is a pale imitation of Die Hard, whereas Olympus Has Fallen feels more like its own thing. It’s also the only 2013 White House-based action movie to have spawned sequels. The second movie in the franchise was about a terrorist attack that spanned the entirety of London, while the upcoming third movie will see a terrorist takeover of Air Force One.
1. Speed – “Die Hard on a bus”
The premise of “Die Hard on a bus” certainly doesn’t sound very exciting, and the writer who initially pitched it was likely laughed out of a few meetings by studio executives. But the final product is one of the most exhilarating and engaging action movies ever made. It doesn’t just stack up against the other Die Hard rip-offs – it stacks up next to Die Hard itself as one of the finest action movies of all time. The John McClane hero here is Jack Traven, played brilliantly by the great Keanu Reeves, and he finds himself on a bus that’s been rigged with a bomb that will explode if the speed of the bus drops below 50mph. Sandra Bullock provides strong support as the driver of the bus, but its Reeves’ Traven who steals the show. He’s not just a retread of John McClane – thanks to a rewrite by dialogue master Joss Whedon and collaboration with Reeves on who the character should be, he was changed from “a maverick hotshot” to “the polite guy trying not to get anybody killed.” Speed is a tense, fast-paced, frenetic, exciting, twisty, unpredictable, technically brilliant, beautifully constructed action thriller – and it’s also a quintessential popcorn movie.