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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference