Welcome to the party, Pal: 'Die Hard' and Bruce Willis's John McClane make it to 25, just about intact

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It's 25 years since Die Hard was released. Yippee-ki-yay to that, says Tim Walker

Los Angeles is a city with few iconic skyscrapers, but there is at least one that's familiar to millions of people who've never even been near Southern California. This 35-storey tower of red granite and blue-tinted glass stands at 2121 Avenue of the Stars, slightly set apart from the other architectural giants of LA's Century City neighbourhood. Ronald Reagan lived in the 34th-floor penthouse for a few years after vacating the White House. Its real name is the Fox Plaza; you probably know it as Nakatomi Plaza.

In 1987, soon after its construction, the building became the headquarters of 20th Century Fox, just as the studio was searching for a location to film its latest blockbuster, Die Hard: a genre classic, which is now celebrating its 25th birthday with a commemorative boxset and the imminent release of its fourth sequel. The story of a simple New York cop who finds himself fighting heavily-armed terrorists on the upper floors of the aforementioned Nakatomi Plaza, Die Hard remains the paradigmatic one-man-against-all-the-odds action thriller. Its hero, John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, quickly became the model for multiple onscreen heroes.

Die Hard also provided the gold standard for the meaningless, two-word action movie title: Under Siege, Boiling Point, Hard Boiled, Sudden Death. Its own sequels gradually decreased in quality as the formula was diluted, though Die Hard 2 ("They say lightning never strikes twice... They were wrong") is a fine follow-up; Die Hard: With aVengeance gets by with help from one of Samuel L Jackson's most memorable performances; and Die Hard 4.0 – known in the US as Live Free or Die Hard – features McClane hitting a helicopter with a car.

McClane tumbled down the fire escape into a Hollywood dominated by invulnerable knuckleheads played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. But he became the most enduring of the era's action heroes precisely because he was fallible and flawed, an almost-regular guy with whom the neurotic New Man could, if not relate, at least sympathise. He got by on his wit and his wisecracks, as much as his physical attributes: a latter-day Philip Marlowe (with a Heckler & Koch submachine gun). He has been known to blub.

With both his ex-wife Holly and his daughter Lucy surviving hostage situations in Die Hards 1 and 4 respectively, the latest film in the series, A Good Day to Die Hard, will centre on McClane's relationship with his son, John "Jack" McClane, Jr. McClane Jr takes after his dad: last seen as a toddler in the first movie, he's now working for the CIA in Moscow, where McClane Sr catches up with him just as trouble, er… explodes. Tagline? "Yippee-ki-yay in Mother Russia."

Naturally, this sets up the possibility of further Die Hards starring Jack (Jai Courtney) as the leading McClane, but don't put it past Willis to come back for more. Stallone made six Rocky movies, the last of them aged 59. Willis is 57. He's tried to break the McClane mould with dramatic roles, but he can't quite seem to escape the pull of Plainsfield, New Jersey's finest.

Willis, in fact, is the sole remaining player from the early films. John McTiernan, the director who deserves much of the credit for Die Hard – and Die Hard: With a Vengeance, which he also helmed – is about to serve a year in jail for perjury. Incidentally, McTiernan's cinematographer on the original 1988 classic, Jan de Bont, used the Fox Plaza again for the opening scenes of his own directorial debut six years later: that other groundbreaking action thriller, Speed.

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