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Essay: Death is hard, but there's life in it

`Die Hard' copycats can set their own body count, says Daniel Rosenthal, but they should leave the rules alone
This weekend marks the end of the Die Hard Decade. On 3 February, 1989, British cinema audiences had their first glimpse of Bruce Willis as New York cop John McClane. Barefoot and blood-stained, he crept around a Los Angeles skyscraper, battling the terrorists-cum-thieves led, with immaculately tailored panache, by Alan Rickman.

Here was the kind of movie which many people abhor: loud, extremely violent and with less than zero to say about the human condition. I make no claims for it as great art, but it is on my "time machine" list; a film so enjoyable I wish I could turn back the clock to experience it again for the first time.

What my friends and I, aged 18, did not realise when we trooped happily out of Die Hard at the Odeon Swiss Cottage, was just how eager producers would be to dish up more of the same. Exactly the same.

Including two sequels, Hollywood has pumped out 10 Die Hard copies and, for its pains, reaped a cumulative box-office gross of about $1.5bn (pounds 950m). Never in the field of screen conflict has a formula been followed so slavishly, so frequently and in such a short space of time.

The cloning began in 1990, with Willis repeating his one-man heroics, in an airport, for Die Hard 2. Under Siege, in 1992, had Steven Seagal doing "Die Hard on a battleship", and the following year Wesley Snipes saved a hijacked plane in Passenger 57 and Sylvester Stallone left a trail of criminal corpses in the Rockies in Cliffhanger.

After a barren 1994, double helpings arrived in 1995 and 1996. Under Siege 2, with Seagal again, this time on a hijacked train, and Die Hard With A Vengeance (Willis in New York) were followed by Jean-Claude Van Damme's Sudden Death (Die Hard in an ice hockey arena) and The Rock (Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage reheat the recipe in Alcatraz).

Summer 1997 offered Air Force One (Harrison Ford's US president versus Russian terrorists on the eponymous jumbo). Last November, with Samuel L Jackson as a framed cop in The Negotiator, the wheel came full circle. This was "Die Hard in another skyscraper", albeit with a neat twist: it's the good guy who takes the hostages.

With scriptwriting courses becoming more popular, what better occasion than this 10th anniversary to introduce a DIY guide to penning your own Die Hard-alike? Diversion from certain cardinal rules is ill-advised but the body count is entirely at your discretion.

Act 1 - The set-up. Introduce your key location and characters. It's never sufficient for the hero simply to have his own life or the lives of innocent hostages threatened. You must bring along a family member or two who can be taken hostage later (Willis's estranged wife, Seagal's niece, Ford's wife and daughter).

Act 2 - The takeover. As your thieves or terrorists seize control, make sure your villain is played by a classy, preferably award-winning actor.

Remember, though, that Rickman, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, Eric Bogosian, Jeremy Irons, Powers Boothe, Ed Harris and Gary Oldman have already done this gig, so are probably unavailable.

When it comes to ensuring that your hero evades capture during the takeover, toilet training is vital: Willis is in the bathroom, Snipes in an airplane loo, Cage and Connery in a sewage tunnel.

Act 3 - The fightback. Your hero begins to kick ass, despite the, preferably comic, impotence of police, FBI or air force (delete as appropriate).

Act 4 - The setback. Terrorists halt the hero's progress by capturing him or threatening to kill his loved one.

Act 5 - The climax. Explosions, gunfire, fist fights - culminating in the hero's one-on-one with the chief baddie. Best to let the villain fall to his death from a great height (eg Rickman and Oldman) or be blown up in a helicopter (eg Lithgow, Boothe and Irons).

The formula is easily mocked, although that doesn't mean it's easy to bring off. Die Hard's box-office performance has been surpassed by the sequels and several imitators; not so its entertainment value.

To explain why, you begin with Willis. His performance would be tagged Exhibit A if you were trying to prove that film newcomers are more engaging than stars. When Die Hard opened, Willis was famous through television, for his "Will-they-won't-they?" sexual sparring with Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting. In the cinema he had managed two lame Blake Edwards comedies, Blind Date and Sunset. No one had ever seen him as an action hero, and McClane was originally going to be played by Richard Gere.

Willis could therefore bring with him an unrepeatable freshness, much like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars or Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours.

In 1989, Willis convinced as McClane; ever since, with a gun in his hand, he's just been Bruce Willis.

Die Hard also demonstrates that even in the most over-blown scenario a super hero need not be superhuman. Granted, McClane retains a gloriously improbable ability to crack wise ("Now I know how a TV dinner feels," he growls when crammed into an air-conditioning duct), but as the bullets fly, Willis and director John McTiernan dwell on the cop's fear, pain and near-exhaustion.

His tactics are improvised, chaotic and, at times, accidental. You feel as though he might fail at any moment - something that can never be said of Stallone, Van Damme or Seagal. McClane kills mostly in desperate self- defence; in the Under Siege movies, Seagal picks off heavily-armed goons the way you or I pick lint off a sweater.

Even more than Predator (also directed by McTiernan) and Lethal Weapon, both unleashed by Die Hard producer Joel Silver in 1987, McClane's first adventure upped the ante on what audiences expected from action movies.

It became a benchmark as well as a template. When budget has allowed, all of the imitators have gone for larger casts, pyrotechnics and body counts, yet none have recreated the original's feel, as a claustrophobic epic.

This is a classic "inside/outside" movie, first cousin to Dog Day Afternoon and Assault on Precinct 13. Constant shifts between the pressurised interior and the waiting game being played outdoors generate an irresistible rhythm. In the sequels, allowing McClane to roam around an airport, or the whole of New York, gave directors more room for manoeuvre and guaranteed cinemagoers more bangs for their bucks. Tension, however, was in comparatively short supply.

Die Hard is not without its flaws. The idea that Willis's sole ally, a mild-mannered black policeman who, years earlier, had accidentally shot and killed a child, can only redeem himself by gunning down the last surviving bad guy is particularly offensive.

Such reservations are buried by the throwaway lines, the digs at moronic, bloodthirsty TV news coverage and the sheer technical brilliance. There were Oscar nominations for editing, sound, sound effects editing and visual effects. Cinematographer Jan De Bont (bound for fame as director of Speed) was somehow overlooked.

With hindsight, Die Hard's place in Hollywood history was secured before the cameras rolled, when Arnold Rifkin, of the William Morris Agency, negotiated a $5m fee for Willis. That also became a benchmark. "If Bruce got it, I get it," became the refrain from A-list stars with stronger track records. Rampant inflation followed, and Willis, Cruise and Co now command $20m a movie.

What next for the formula? The official line from Willis's agent is: "We hope there will be a fourth Die Hard". Naturally, the Internet is awash with speculation. Die Hard underwater? In the jungle? In space? Whatever happens, in 30 years' time, age will not have wearied Die Hard - except, perhaps, for one detail which is already hopelessly dated. In the opening sequence, Willis enters the arrival hall at LA airport and lights up a cigarette. Smoking? In a public building in California? Call the SWAT team.