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'Die Hard' at 30: The 10 best action films that followed its classic template

Bruce Willis as John McClane in  Die Hard. (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Everett/REX)

Die Hard is an undisputed action classic, and proof of its enduring greatness is that, in the 30 years since its theatrical debut (July 15, 1988), it’s spawned a legion of imitators that could easily be summarized as “Die Hard on a…” Putting a novel spin on that movie’s trademark formula — a lone hero battling terrorists while trapped in a confined setting — those knock-offs confirm that John McTiernan’s Bruce Willis vehicle has a premise for the ages. And that fact will again be corroborated this Friday, when Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson plays a security guard (with one leg!) who has to brave a towering inferno to save his family from some bad guys in Skyscraper. Thus, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this timeless tale, as well as the impending premiere of Johnson’s one-against-many high-rise adventure, we present the 10 (well technically 11, but who’s counting) finest films to take their cue from Die Hard.

Watch the Skyscraper trailer:

Under Siege (1992)

It’s Die Hard … on a battleship, as Steven Seagal’s cook (who’s also an ex-Navy SEAL!) fights back against a group of terrorists led by Tommy Lee Jones’s former CIA agent, who plans to steal the craft’s missiles. Seagal is at his cocky-beyond-belief best as a martial-arts badass, Jones is hilarious as an over-the-top villain, and director Andrew Davis (a year before helming the even better The Fugitive) gives the material the muscular energy it demands, even as he rips off some of his spiritual ancestor’s most famous imagery (e.g. Seagal leaping off an exploding structure while tied to a rope).

Passenger 57 (1992)

It’s Die Hard … on a plane, as Wesley Snipes’s former Secret Service agent finds himself back in crime-fighting action when his flight is commandeered by a crazed terrorist (Bruce Payne) trying to escape federal custody. As with so many of Die Hards progeny, Snipes’s hero must overcome a past trauma throughout the course of his ordeal, although the best thing about director Kevin Hooks’s 1992 effort is Snipes himself, who’s preternaturally cool in one of his signature roles, thanks in part to his unforgettable one-liner: “Always bet on black.”

Sudden Death (1995)

It’s Die Hard … in a sports arena, as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fire marshal is thrust into heroic duty when he discovers that the venue at which he works has been rigged to explode by an ex-CIA agent (Powers Boothe) during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, which is being attended by the vice president. Van Damme punches people in the face, pretends to be the Pittsburgh Penguins goalie, scales the arena roof, and ultimately causes Boothe’s helicopter to crash onto the ice — all in a day’s work for the Muscles From Brussels.

Speed (1994)

It’s Die Hard … on a bus, as Keanu Reeves’s LAPD officer hops aboard a city vehicle (filled with passengers, including Sandra Bullock) that’s been armed with a bomb set to explode if the bus’ speed drops below 50 mph. Reeves’s studly turn, Dennis Hopper’s mad bomber, and excellent direction from Jan de Bont made this outrageous 1994 film a hit, as did some thrillingly cartoonish moments, such as the bus leaping over a giant gap in an unfinished section of the L.A. freeway.

Olympus Has Fallen/White House Down (2013)

It’s Die Hard … at the White House, as both of these 2013 films feature a scenario in which the president’s residence is attacked by terrorists, and a single-minded badass must come to the commander in chief’s rescue. Audiences preferred Gerard Butler’s revered Secret Service agent to Channing Tatum’s wannabe Secret Service agent, as evidenced by 2016’s sequel London Has Fallen. However, when it comes to paying homage to Die Hard, the latter has the former beat, if only because Tatum spends so much of White House Down taking out adversaries while wearing a Bruce Willis-style white undershirt.

Cliffhanger (1993)

It’s Die Hard … in the mountains, as Sylvester Stallone’s expert climber is forced to deal with a group of terrorists (led by John Lithgow’s ex-military agent) who are searching for three cases of U.S. Treasury money that they stole, but then lost when their plane went down. Lithgow spends the majority of the snowbound film hamming it up with a British accent, which only further amplifies the deliriousness of director Renny Harlin’s 1993 hit, which remains one of Stallone’s most underrated adventures.

Air Force One (1997)

It’s Die Hard … aboard a plane again! But this time, that plane is Air Force One, as Harrison Ford’s no-nonsense commander in chief gives a speech about not backing down to terrorists, and then puts his money where his mouth is after his aircraft is hijacked by Gary Oldman’s stark-raving-mad Russian. Nobody does noble toughness better than Ford, which helps make Wolfgang Peterson’s 1997 film — about a principled president who risks his own life to stop a Russian adversary from gaining the upper hand over America — a fantasy that only gets more timely with each passing day.

Toy Soldiers (1991)

It’s Die Hard … at an all-boys boarding school, as Sean Astin’s student combats a group of terrorists who storm the establishment looking for a particular kid (whose dad is presiding over the trial of a drug kingpin) and, upon failing to find him, take the rest of the residents hostage. Because Astin’s do-gooder is aided in his anti-insurgency quest by his best friends, he doesn’t quite fit the Bruce Willis/John McClane mold. Nonetheless, Toy Soldiers is, in most respects, a better-than-you’d-expect teen variation on Die Hard.

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

It’s Die Hard … on a plane, yet again, except this time the aircraft has a horde of snakes been set loose at 30,000 feet by a crime boss to kill a man planning to testify against him in court. It’s a plot fit for a ludicrous B-movie, which is just what director David R. Ellis delivers with this internet-hyped feature starring Samuel L. Jackson, who plays off his tough-guy persona as an FBI agent compelled to contend with this slithering onslaught — and who gets to give one of the dumbest, and funniest, lines in action-cinema history.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)

It’s Die Hard … but harder, and at an airport, as Bruce Willis reprises his role as John McClane for Renny Harlin’s 1990 sequel. Set exactly one year after its predecessor, McClane finds himself up against a new Christmas Eve threat at Washington Dulles International Airport. The place has been overrun with terrorists who plan to crash incoming planes until their demands are met — a big problem for McClane, given that his wife’s flight is circling overhead. Bigger and busier in every respect, it’s an outlandish follow-up that proves that no one does Die Hard (or Die Hard knockoffs) quite like Willis himself.

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