When I first had the idea to do a compendium of the "best" Die Hard knock-off movies, I didn't stop to think A) if other writers have done this piece recently, and B) how tough it is to actually define what a true "Die Hard knock-off" is. Regarding the first concern, meh, it'll be fun anyway, and regarding the second ... I'll keep it to a low number. Say ... five. (Or six.) That way you can toss your own suggestions into the comments section or head off to twitter and call me a fool for somehow omitting the 1996 uber-classic Skyscraper, starring Anna Nicole Smith in the John McClane-ish role (and yes that's a real movie). Ooh, or No Contest, with Shannon Tweed. So awesomely awful.
Regarding Die Hard itself, it still remains one of the unquestionable classics of American action cinema, not only because of the myriad action thrillers it "inspired," but also because it holds up just as well today as it did back in 1988. Maybe even better. By the way, if you believe that Die Hard should be seriously considered for the National Film Registry this year, visit this twitter account and find out how to cast your vote. They're always going to get the right dramas and comedies eventually, but we need to make a little noise for folks to take Die Hard seriously.
Oh, and I've defined a Die Hard knock-off by these three simple criteria:
1. Solo hero
2. Contained location
3. Dispatching villains from the inside out
That was easy!
1. Under Siege (1992) -- Yes, it's a Steven Seagal movie, and he makes good films about as often as I have a Bar Mitzvah, but chalk the goodness of Under Siege up to director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), who keeps the "Die Hard on a Battleship" concept cooking smoothly. And when you get tired of Steven Seagal, which you will, you can focus on the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey, Colm Meaney, and the truly lovely Erika Eleniak. (Obviously you could wash this one down with the sequel, which is "Die Hard on a Train." Subtle.)
2. Passenger 57 (1992) -- "Die Hard on a Jet" with Wesley Snipes! This one couldn't stick closer to the now-well-established formula of the sub-sub-genre, and this one has an even BETTER supporting cast: Bruce Greenwood, Tom Sizemore, Elizabeth Hurley(!), and Bruce "Warlock 3" Payne as the nefarious Charles Rane! I'll be honest: I don't remember a whole lot of this cable staple, but it fit the qualifications and I love the "always bet on black!" line, which I always found weird because there's no roulette played in the movie at all.
3. Die Hard 2 (1990) -- Can a sequel be a knock-off? Heck, yes. It fits all three of my criteria -- plus it's the only Die Hard sequel that does! Part 2 suffers in direct comparison to the original Die Hard, obviously, but I'd still contend that Renny Harlin's "Die Hard in an Airport" sequel has a whole lot of simple action mayhem, and Bruce Willis was still having some clear fun with the role. As usual for these movies, the supporting cast is great, and here it's full of both fun newcomers and familiar faces. Plus that icicle bit is still awesome. (Yes, Die Hard 3 is also cool, but it doesn't adhere to the three golden rules.)
4. Cliffhanger (1993) -- If you get rid of Nakatomi Plaza and replace it with the Rocky Mountains, you have "Die Hard on a Mountain," and yes, the "Rocky" Mountains in a Sylvester Stallone movie is sort of amusing. Here we have Renny Harlin priming the action pump again, and it doesn't hurt that we have Michael Rooker as the sidekick and John Lithgow as the evil bastard. Throw in some great scenery, several slick action bits, and a handful of unintentional howlers, and you might have the best Die Hard knock-off yet.
5. Toy Soldiers (1991) -- OK, I'm bending the rules a little bit on this one: Sean Astin is the central hero, but he DOES get help from clever little nerds like Keith Coogan and Wil Wheaton; otherwise this mild cult favorite is best described as "Die Hard in a Private School." We have the youthful heroes on the inside, and outside the gates? Louis Gossett Jr., R. Lee Ermey, Denholm Elliott, and Mason Adams! Now those are some grown-up authority figures, dammit. It will take all of these brave men to thwart the evil advances of ... Andrew Divoff, a character actor who oozes evil whenever a movie camera is pointed at him.
6. Sudden Death (1995) -- "Die Hard at a Hockey Game." In some industries you'd get sued for this sort of blatant plagiarism. In Hollywood, hey, it works! And particularly well in this kooky Peter Hyams flick, if you ask me.
Bonus pick for silliness: Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) -- I've seen this monumental turkey precisely once, but I'm pretty sure it covers the Die Hard template even more closely than the first Speed does: a lone heroine thwarting a feral Willem Dafoe from, oh excuse me, "Die Hard on a Cruise Ship!" But then there was Jason Patric as a sub-hero, so maybe I just needed a wise-ass way to wrap this whole thing up.
I just know I'm going to end up rewatching Speed 2 some time this week.