Variations On A ‘Die Hard’ Formula

A film cynic I know once described life as nothing more than “the time spent between Die Hard movie premieres.”
While I don’t necessarily agree with him, I can understand and appreciate the sentiments. The Bruce Willis franchise has been gangbusters at the box office (yes, even Live Free or Die Hard).  But as Clint ‘Dirty Harry’ Eastwood himself recently warned his fans, “Dirty Harry was a long time ago … certain things are done at a certain time in your life and worked, and no reason to tamper with them.” (Hat tip:

Dare I ask what happens when Willis’s hip is gone? Who’ll fight the terrorists when John McClane’s arthritis acts up? Who can we turn to when Bruce and dentures are no longer a joke?
If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then perhaps it’s time to crack open the movie vaults to explore some lesser gems that borrowed shamelessly from the popular Die Hard formula. It’s easy to call Speed nothing more than ‘Die Hard on a Bus.’  Also, it’s even easier to suggest that The Raid: Redemption or the most recent take on Judge Dredd filled their cups from the same well of inspiration.  So I’ll leave those alone and highlight ones that may’ve been overlooked, forgotten, or deserve another glance.

Sleepless Night

Say what you will about subtitled pictures, but I find some of the slickest films these days in foreign releases. Sleepless Night (2011, Chic Films) came my way as a complimentary screener, and I’m glad I gave it a spin. Think of it as ‘Die Hard In A French Nightclub,’ which I realize may not sound all that exciting to some of you, but it slips effortlessly between fisticuffs, drama, and gunplay with great ease.

Police detective Vincent (played by Tomer Sisley) may or may not be a crooked cop (it’s the dubious nature of his character that makes his struggle so interesting to watch).  When he ends up with a huge stock of cocaine that belongs to a powerful drug lord, the thugs kidnap his little boy. Now, Vincent has until the end of the night to return the coke, or his son dies. The twist? They’re all trapped in a nightclub, and, due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control, their allegiances and alliances keep shifting.  What’s a good/bad cop to do?

Certainly, Sleepless Night doesn’t have the big budget pyrotechnics and stunt work that elevate films like Die Hard to the status of crowd-pleasers. Still, once the fists and bullets start flying, they rarely stop, and Sisley delivers a great physical performance that slips between manic and ruthlessness at just the right moments.  Think of this as Die Hard by way of some early Quentin Tarantino.


Certainly not as big as the Harrison Ford actioner, Air Force One (‘Die Hard on a Jet! With A President!’), Interceptor (1993, Trimark Pictures) gets written off as meek or passable, but I’ve always found it quite nice. Sure, it has its own narrative problems – the audience is never really encouraged to root for the hero as an ‘everyman’ in the same way McClane is set up, and there are technical and continuity goofs aplenty – but it’s also got no less than screen baddie Jurgen Prochnow as the villain!

Veteran actor Andrew Divoff – trust me, you’ve seen him in everything – plays Capt. Christopher Winfield. Following his total frak-up of a highly experimental virtual reality stealth fighter, Winfield is on his way home for a lovely court martial when his transport plane is seized by terrorists.  (Enter the Jurgen!). Winfield puts aside his career worries and begins dispensing them one-by-one – McClane-style – but never fear: before it’s all over, he’ll get the chance to strap on some wings again and show us he hasn’t lost the need for speed.

Under Siege / Under Siege 2

It looks like Steven Seagal liked the Die Hard formula so much that he dipped in it twice, first with Under Siege (‘Die Hard on a Destroyer’) and then again with Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (‘Die Hard on a Train’). While I tend to prefer the sequel – it’s less believable but works so much better as a true popcorn flick with the only exception being the notable loss of Erika Eleniak’s boobs as co-star – I’ve got no qualms giving ’em both an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Seagal plays Casey Ryback, a cook with some serious fighting skills, who happens to make a career out of being in the right place at the right time … or vice versa. In Under Siege (1992, Warner Bros.), the battleship on which he serves is seized by terrorists intent on taking its nuclear arsenal; naturally, Ryback has something to say about that. Three years later, Under Siege 2 plunks Ryback on a train where he’s escorting his niece Sarah (played by Katherine Heigl back when she had a career) on vacation. Terrorists on board plan on using a satellite to blow up the Pentagon, and … you get the idea. Bad guys die. Good guys win.
Both films benefit from Seagal’s glib personae, allowing him to do physically what he does with tremendous ease. The flicks may not have aged all that well, but, then again, neither has Steven.

Breaking News

Far be it from me to pass up on the chance to highlight one of the films of Johnny To. Breaking News (2004, Media Asia Films) starts out slow, showcasing director To’s technical prowess at staging a tense single-take shot for a masterful eight minutes. What unfolds afterwards ends up borrowing heavily on the formula – ‘Die Hard In An Apartment Highrise’ – but doesn’t exploit it for the sake of the action.  To is way to smart as a director for that.

A TV news crew broadcasts the humiliating defeat of police forces against a five-man team of elite criminals robbing a national bank. The robbers hole up in a nearby apartment building, but Police Inspector Cheung (played by Nick Cheung) stumbles across their set-up. Now, Cheung and his ranking officer decide to turn the tables against the crooks by leaking to the press ‘breaking news’ that’ll confuse the men in hiding, who are obviously relying on the TV broadcasts to get away.

Again, Breaking News lacks some of the big action pieces so common to the Die Hard franchise, but it heavily borrows on the ‘locked box’ formula in order to ratchet up serious tension and even deliver some modest laughs. It’s a cat-and-mouse caper flick between the good guys and the bad where you’re certain justice will prevail.


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