The 9 Best and Worst ‘Die Hard’ Knock-Offs

Executive Decision (1996)

Arguably his only other decent film, Executive Decision nonetheless earned Steven Seagal a Razzie nomination. Yet in a shocking twist given his level of fame at the time, his character is killed off early in the movie as the Army special ops unit he is leading transfers mid-air to a hijacked jumbo jet from an experimental stealth plane.

This film really belongs to Kurt Russell, who received top billing (Seagal’s name noticeably wasn’t featured in the opening credits, even as he ran around slitting throats). Russell boasted his own action-movie pedigree, of course, via ‘80s cult classics like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China. However, he was 30 when he donned the eyepatch to play Snake Plissken and now he was 45 and wearing a pair of bookish spectacles.

Dr. David Grant, the Army Intelligence consultant he plays, is another character cast in the McClane mold. Neither musclebound nor a martial arts master, Grant has more of an everyman quality that harkens back to McClane and serves as a reminder of how he subverted the physical image of an action hero. Prior to Die Hard, Bruce Willis was known more for his TV dramedy work on Moonlighting, just as Michael Keaton was known more for his comedy work in films like Beetlejuice before he assumed the mantle of Batman.

Honorable Mention: Breakdown (1997). Russell rides a Jeep straight into a “Die Hard on a desert highway” scenario.

The Rock (1996)

The AV Club called The Rock “the one good movie Michael Bay ever gave us.” That might be a back-handed compliment, but it does seem to sum up the critical consensus about Bay’s directorial work. The Rock (not to be confused with the new Dwayne Johnson Die Hard knockoff, Skyscraper) is one action movie that left an impression and that’s got to count for something.

One of the things The Rock has going for it is the interplay between Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage’s characters. John McClane may lack the physique of a bodybuilder but he does have detective-level police experience and that’s more than can be said for Cage’s lab rat, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed. Like Dr. David Grant in the previous entry on this list, Goodspeed is brought in as a consultant to a military unit (this time it’s Navy SEALs, not Army Special Forces). He soon learns that he will have to accompany them to Alcatraz Island on what will eventually become a “Die Hard in a prison” mission.

The buddy-movie dynamic between him and Connery’s character provides an interesting twist on the usual one-man Die Hard scenario. Having a corny schlub team up with the first big-screen James Bond allows for a different kind of wish fulfillment. It’s as if Sgt. Al Powell (the character played by Family Matters actor Reginald VelJohnson in Die Hard) is tagging along with McClane and receiving life-coaching from him about what “winners” do with the prom queen. Ed Harris makes for a more principled, sympathetic Gruber surrogate but he’s still after money ($100 million again).

Honorable mention: Con Air (1997). Yet another “Die Hard on a plane” movie, albeit one stacked with a who’s who list of ‘90s character actors.

Air Force One (1997)

“Harrison Ford is … the President of the United States.” Gary Oldman is … Russian Hans Gruber. That’s an oversimplification, obviously: Oldman is too talented an actor to let his character fall into some mere parody of another action movie villain. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s playing yet another terrorist with a foreign accent.

Air Force One has been called “Die Hard on the President’s plane.” Though he seems like the kind of interview subject who would gruffly rebuke such a conjecture, there had to have been some kind of wish fulfillment aspect to this film for Ford, who is a licensed pilot in real life. What other role would allow him to crawl into the cockpit of the most important plane on the planet?

Like the heroism in all these movies, it’s the ultimate male fantasy. He’s not only the leader of the free world; he’s also a Vietnam vet with aviation experience who is capable of single-handedly taking on a plane full of bad guys, sneaking around and picking them off like John McClane. To be fair, McClane was friendlier, given to spouting one-liners like, “Welcome to the party, pal,” whereas Ford’s character, the authoritatively named President Marshall (our real-life President’s favorite on-screen president, for what that’s worth), is more likely to make an angry face and say, “Get off my plane,” before shoving a guy right out of the parachute ramp.

Years later, Ford would again follow the action-movie trail blazed by Bruce Willis when he flew in a helicopter to offer a bit of consolation casting for the lack of Willis in The Expendables 3.

21st Century Knock-Offs

Popular tastes are ever-changing and in terms of box office supremacy, the great deluge of Die Hard knockoffs in the 1990s has largely given way to what’s been called a “tsunami of superhero movies” in the 21st century. Still, there are a few high-profile examples of action films that have continued to carry the ball downfield from Die Hard into the new millennium. These three merit a mention before we wrap up.

Snakes on a Plane (2006). To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Snakes on a Plane: “You know all those [Die Hard] scenarios we ran? Well, I’m smack in the middle of one we didn’t think of.” Maybe seeing Snake Plissken on a plane in Executive Decision planted the subliminal seed for this movie, which came along ten years later in an attempt to reverse-engineer a cult classic from an awesome-sounding title. Jackson does his thing but this is one of those ideas that might have made a better Grindhouse trailer than something stretched out to feature length.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and White House Down (2013). Like Deep Impact and Armageddon fifteen years earlier, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down offered up competing tentpole releases with the same idea the same year. Now that “Die Hard on the President’s plane” had already been done, the next logical move was for some able-bodied movie studio to crank out “Die Hard in the White House.” So they did that … twice. Of the two flicks, Olympus Has Fallen earns brownie points for being first out of the gate; having a star with more of an action-movie pedigree (Gerard Butler); getting Morgan Freeman to act as President again; and spawning a sequel (London Has Fallen). But be honest, would you really notice if you fell asleep on the plane during this movie and woke up in the middle of White House Down (or any other movie on this list)?

They’re all Die Hard. Everything is everything and it all goes back to Die Hard. If there’s anything reboots and shared universes have taught us, it’s that Hollywood has a tendency to exploit a successful business model until it’s been done to death.

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