Hollywood has a tendency to learn all the wrong lessons. The original Die Hard broke out into the public consciousness because it starred a normal guy, played by Bruce Willis, taking on a group of armed hostage takers while bonding with a complete stranger on the other end of a walkie-talkie and suffering the physical and emotional consequences of action sequences that his contemporaries, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, would have shrugged off as just another day at the office. But instead of putting all their energy into action movies starring realistic, human characters, Hollywood decided it would be easier to make a ton of movies about heroes trapped in a single location, fighting off an army of terrorists.
And yet, the film industry produced so damned many “Die Hard on a [Blank]” movies that a bunch of them turned out to be pretty damned good. With A Good Day to Die Hard coming out this Valentine’s Day, and apparently embracing the same over-the-top macho aesthetic that the original Die Hard broke away from, we here at the CraveOnline Film Channel thought it was the perfect opportunity to revisit The Top Nine Die Hard Knock-Offs ever made. (Well, technically there's ten of them.) These are the low-concept, easily pitchable movies that overcame their own odds and wound up being pretty fun and, in a couple of cases, genuinely great action films in their own right.
Air Force One (1997)
a.k.a. “It’s Die Hard… on Air Force One!”
Air Force One was a blockbuster when it came out in 1997. It starred Harrison Ford in what might be (at this rate) his last box office success that wasn’t a sequel, and pit him against Gary Oldman at a time when, if your film had a bad guy, it was probably Gary Oldman. They’re both in top form here: Ford stars as President James Marshall, whose plane is hijacked by terrorists. They’re led by Oldman, who didn’t realize that the President of the United States is a former soldier who’s more than capable of taking back Air Force One all by himself. Director Wolfgang Peterson ratchets up the suspense, but the hokey patriotism, familiar storyline and early, crappy CGI effects just don’t play as well today.
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)
a.k.a. “It’s Die Hard… on a train!”
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory was the second of Steven Seagal’s three Die Hard knock-offs, but it’s better than it has any right to be. This time, Casey Ryback’s on vacation with his niece, played by Katherine Heigl (yes, that Katherine Heigl), and taking the train from Colorado to Los Angeles. Naturally, the train gets hijacked by terrorists, who somehow manage to elude the authorities despite being stuck on, well, train tracks. This time, they’re being led by famed playwright Eric Bogosian, who hams it up like mad as a hacker anarchist selling his space earthquake gun technology to the highest bidder. It’s just as stupid as it sounds, but it’s also a fast-paced thriller with entertaining performances and many memorable scenes, including a terrorist who’s so manly that he uses Heigl’s pepper spray to clear his sinuses.
The Aggression Scale (2012)
a.k.a. “It’s Die Hard… with a kid! A HOMICIDAL KID!”
In all fairness, “Die Hard with a kid” had been done several times before in films like Home Alone and the original Three Ninjas (parts of it, anyway), but Steven C. Miller’s 2012 thriller takes it to a whole new level. Ryan Hartwig stars as Owen, a sociopathic little boy whose family stole money from the mob. When a group of enforcers shows up at their posh new house and, well, blows most of them away, it’s up to the nascent serial killer and his stepsister Lauren (Fabianne Therese of John Dies at the End), who already have a really creepy chemistry together, to take revenge. The Aggression Scale has a low-budget aesthetic, but that only helps cement the film as all kinds of wrong. And badass.
Sudden Death (1995)
a.k.a. “It’s Die Hard… at the NHL Stanley Cup Finals!”
On any list of the best Jean-Claude Van Damme movies ever made, Peter Hyams’ Sudden Death probably ranks pretty damn high. This Die Hard knock-off stars JCVD as Darren McCord, an ex-fireman working at a hockey stadium during the seventh game of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals. Terrorists take over, led by the always-menacing Powers Boothe, and take the Vice President for ransom, threatening to blow up the entire stadium at the end of the game. With thousands of audience members at risk, and completely unaware that they’re even hostages, it’s all on Van Damme to find the bombs, beat up bad guys dressed as NHL mascots and even take to the ice himself in a desperate, last-minute ploy to keep the game going into overtime. Sudden Death takes a pretty thin concept and gets a lot out of it, with one memorable set piece after another.
a.k.a. “It’s Die Hard… on a mountain!”
John Lithgow steals $100 million in a breathtaking mid-air heist, but loses the money in a plane crash in the Rocky Mountains. So he kidnaps Sylvester Stallone and Michael Rooker, a pair of mountain climbers sent to their rescue, and forces them into one deadly situation after another to retrieve the dough. Lithgow chews the scenery (easier than usual, since it’s made of ice), and Stallone is at his credible best, but the real star here is director Renny Harlin and his production team, who pack Cliffhanger with incredible stunts and vertigo-inspiring photography that capitalizes on the film’s impressive locales.
The Raid: Redemption & Dredd 3D (2012)
a.k.a. “It’s Die Hard… in an apartment complex!”
2012 saw not one but two great Die Hard knock-offs, set (coincidentally) in basically the same location. The Raid: Redemption stars Iko Uwais as Rama, a SWAT team member sent into an apartment complex filled with dangerous criminals, on a mission to apprehend the crime boss on the top floor. They’re overpowered, and resort to awe-inspiring fight choreography to fight their way out of an impossible situation. Dredd 3D stars Karl Urban as Judge Dredd, a futuristic lawman sent into an apartment complex filled with dangerous criminals, on a mission to apprehend a crime boss on the top floor. They’re overpowered, and… that’s where the similarities end. The Raid: Redemption is an explosion of non-stop thrills, but Dredd 3D has more character and creativity. They both kick all kinds of ass.
Under Siege (1992)
a.k.a. “It’s Die Hard… on a battleship!”
Under Siege, one of the very best Die Hard knock-offs around, stars Steven Seagal as a cook on the U.S.S. Missouri who should, by Gary Busey’s and Tommy Lee Jones’s estimation, be no problem to their dastardly hijacking plans whatsoever. A cook? What could possibly go wrong?! It turns out that Chief Petty Officer Casey Ryback is actually a former Navy SEAL who teams up with a stripper played by Erika Eleniak (long story) to save the crew, avenge the ship’s captain and fight Tommy Lee Jones to the death with knives. Seagal was rarely this charismatic, Busey and Jones ham it up as classic bad guys, and Andrew Davis, who just one year later would direct The Fugitive – one of the few straight-up action movies ever nominated for Best Picture – pounds your pulse throughout the entire film.
Executive Decision (1996)
a.k.a. “It’s Die Hard… on a plane!”
One of the few Die Hard knock-offs to assemble an entire supporting cast of heroes, Executive Decision stars Kurt Russell as an Army Intelligence bookworm who tags along with an Special Forces Unit, led by Steven Seagal (again) and John Leguizamo, on their latest mission. They have to board a passenger jet – in mid-air – and take down a group of terrorist hijackers. But first they have to diffuse the bomb in the cargo hold, locate the terrorists' hidden leader, and make contact with a helpful flight attendant played by Halle Berry without being noticed. Executive Decision knows it’s mid-air docking scene is ludicrous (in fact, that’s a major plot point), but the writing is taut, the surprises are many and each member of the ensemble cast is given something important to do. Die Hard knock-offs don’t get much better than this.
Well, one of them does…
a.ka. “It’s Die Hard… on a bus?!”
One of the most ridiculous extrapolations of the Die Hard subgenre – it’s on a BUS, for crying out loud – miraculously turned into one of the best action movies of the 1990s thanks to clever plotting, fantastic dialogue (courtesy of an uncredited Joss Whedon) and crazy action sequences by director Jan De Bont and his capable production team. Keanu Reeves stars as Jack Traven, a LAPD officer thrust into a deadly game with a mad bomber played by Dennis Hopper. Pop quiz hotshot: there’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? Well, Traven hops on board in speeding traffic and races throughout Los Angeles at top speed trying to rescue the passengers and stop the bad guy while jumping gaps in the freeway and sliding under the vehicle to diffuse the damned thing. Speed has no business being as good as it is, but thanks to pluck, wit and some unforgettable action sequences, it’s almost as much of a classic as Die Hard ever was.