Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after Die Hard.
Ho-Ho-Ho. ’Tis the season to watch Die Hard, the classic Christmas-set action blockbuster that is also one of the most influential movies of all time. Not only has it spawned four actual sequels and a number of pseudo sequels, it’s also been copied, ripped off and practically remade over and over again without shame. And yet Die Hard was not even the first “Die Hard on a ____ “ movie. Nor was it a wholly original work, having been adapted from a book that was meant to be a sequel to another book and its movie adaptation.
As much as this John McTiernan-directed breakout for Bruce Willis became a leader in its genre, it still owed a ton to movies that came before it. Some of those are indirect precursors in premise, others explicitly referenced. Die Hard is a movie that is, like its hero is said to be, an “orphan of a bankrupt culture,” informed by many movies its creators likely saw as children. That doesn’t make it bankrupt itself, because the borrowing from and alluding to earlier works has enriched masterpieces for millennia.
Below is a list of movies that any Die Hard fan or newbie should go back and look at in order to be familiar with some great oldies as well as to better appreciate this 1988 hit through that familiarity. As usual, I’ve selected 12 titles, which is an especially appropriate number for a Christmas movie. Maybe watch Die Hard on December 25th and then watch one of these each day after through to Epiphany. Make it a new tradition.
Key Largo (1948)
In retrospect, this John Huston movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall has been called “Die Hard in a hotel.” That’s doing it quite a disservice, but you can’t deny that Bogie’s character is sort of like John McClane 40 years early. He’s a war hero who just so happens to be visiting friends at a hotel when it’s hijacked by a group led by a notorious gangster (Edward G. Robinson). And he single-handedly saves the day, only not over the course of the story in action-movie fashion, just in the end. Interestingly, in this movie it’s the bad guy who pretends to be unarmed during the climax. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work out as well for him as it does for McClane.
The Bullet Train (1975)
Another Die Hard type movie that existed before Die Hard, this one has the honor of being labeled the “Ur Example” of the genre at TV Tropes, unofficially crediting it (and not Key Largo) as the first of its kind. Starring Sony Chiba, the Japanese film is basically “Die Hard on a train,” though the setting makes it even more comparable to such movies as Runaway Train, Unstoppable (neither of them “Die Hard on an x” movies) and a number of bad Die Hard rip-offs. It also clearly inspired Speed (aka “Die Hard on a bus”) with its concept of having a movie vehicle that will blow up if it slows below a certain speed. In this movie, the John McClane, played by Chiba, is the train’s conductor, but he’s hardly the same sort of hero, as he doesn’t go around offing the bad guys.
The Detective (1968)
One of two movies that can be thought of as an unofficial prequel to Die Hard (or can we not call it a prequel if it came out first?), this stars Frank Sinatra as New York City cop Joe Leland, who investigates the murder of a gay man. The movie is an adaptation of a novel by Roderick Thorp, who later wrote a sequel called “Nothing Lasts Forever,” in which Leland goes out to Los Angeles at Christmas to see his daughter, meeting her at the skyscraper she works at during the company holiday party. Obviously some things were changed when that book was turned into Die Hard after Sinatra declined to do a sequel to The Detective.
This is the other movie that is almost a prequel to Die Hard, as “Nothing Last Forever” was going to be turned into Commando 2. But star Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t interested (he also reportedly turned down Die Hard when the script was reworked as that). It’s not easy to see how Commando could connect to Die Hard, but that’s partly because we celebrate the latter as having this regular guy sort of hero – even if he’s a cop and not really an average joe everyman kind of guy. For me, though it’s more like a case of night and day. Commando, which has Schwarzenegger as an ex-military guy who has to rescue his daughter from mercenaries who want him to kill a South American dictator for them, is such a sunny movie for the most part, while Die Hard is such a dark, nighttime movie. I know that’s not a big deal, but they just atmospherically clash in my mind. You should also see this one because now supposedly Schwarzenegger is interested in doing a sequel.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
“Nothing Lasts Forever,” which wasn’t published until 1979, was inspired by this star-studded disaster movie about a skyscraper on fire. The story goes that Thorp had a dream the night he saw The Towering Inferno of a man running through a tall building, chased by men with guns. That was the seed for what would become Die Hard. Interestingly enough, this movie also had some odd literary origins, having been jointly adapted from two unrelated books, Richard Martin Stern’s “The Tower” and Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson’s “The Glass Inferno.”
Rhythm on the Range (1936)
There are more than a few Westerns referenced in Die Hard, mostly without naming the titles. There’s a TV series, Bonanza, alluded to also. There’s a great exchange between McClane and head terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) where the latter mentions John Wayne walking into the sunset with Grace Kelley and our hero correcting him that it’s Gary Cooper. That’s from High Noon, a movie that is essential enough that I shouldn’t have to include it here. Rhythm on the Range, however, is not so well known, not even for the trivial fact that it’s the source of Die Hard’s most famous line, “Yippe-ki-yea, mother fucker.” In this Western musical is a song called “I’m an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande),” performed on screen by Bing Crosby, Louis Prima and others. The nonsense lyric isn’t exactly as McClane says it, but that’s of no importance, nor is the quality of the film compared to many other classics of the genre that better fit the derogatory remarks by Gruber about McClane being a cowboy.
John Wayne is one of the iconic Western and action stars Gruber says McClane thinks himself to be. Rather than recommend one of Wayne’s many great cowboy roles, though, I thought it more interesting to showcase this later vehicle in which the actor plays a cop. It’s his second of the sort, apparently a move influenced by fellow Western icon Clint Eastwood’s transition to cop movies, like Dirty Harry. In Brannigan, Wayne is a fish out of water, like McClane, when he heads to London to retrieve a mobster being held for extradition back to America. The movie isn’t amazing, but there’s chase scene with a ridiculous Tower Bridge raised bascule jump, is.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Here’s something I had not known until recently: Michael Kamen’s score for Die Hard pays homage to this Stanley Kubrick movie and its use of music, particularly in its incorporation of “Singin’ in the Rain” and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the latter (suggested first by McTiernan) with its Christmas-appropriate “Ode to Joy” choral section that has become associated with Die Hard. It’s more of a mash-up than that, though, and not only by Kamen’s doing. In the last few minutes, Kamen’s score was cut in favor of temp tracks that worked better, they being from John Scott’s music for Man on Fire and an unused bit of James Horner’s score for Aliens.
Dr. No (1962)
If you look at the header image for this post, you can already guess why this first real (as in EON production) James Bond movie has been included. There are tons of movies where people travel through air ducts, including 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space and its obvious follower, Alien. But 007 is an action hero and this arguably the start of the action movie tradition that leads up to stuff like Die Hard. And in its air-duct scene, Sean Connery as Bond escapes a cell through oversize air vents (that also for some reason water flows through) and winds up having to remove his jacket to expose his tattered white shirt. At that moment, he looks a lot like Willis as McClane in one of Die Hard’s most famous images.
Our Man Flint (1966)
And now here’s a spy movie that parodies the James Bond franchise. Its connection to Die Hard is short but sweet. There’s a bad guy in the movie named Hans Gruber (played by Michael St. Clair). He’s not the main villain, just a henchman, and he’s rather quickly disposed of in one of the many great action movie bathroom deaths.
This movie could sort of join the other two selected that are like fake prequels to Die Hard. Here we get the back story of Nakatomi exec Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi (James Shigeta), if we choose to think of it that way. With some cheating. In this star-studded World War II movie about the Battle of Midway, Shigeta plays real-life Japanese admiral Chuichi Nagumo, whose flagship during that event was the aircraft carrier Akagi. Die-hard fans of Die Hard might recognize that as Takagi’s password for his vault. According to the DVD commentary, Takagi’s character was given a backstory by production designer Jackson De Govia where his password was the ship he had served on during the war.
Don’t get mad at me for spoiling the end of this 72-year-old Alfred Hitchcock wrong-man genre classic, but its ending is where it can be linked to Die Hard. I’m not sure if there was any intention by McTiernan to have Gruber’s demise mimic the shot of Norman Lloyd’s villain falling to his own death in Saboteur, but it’s a perfect tribute if meant to be. Hitchcock has the better location for his climax, the torch of the Statue of Liberty (he’d use a landmark similarly later in North by Northwest), and shockingly his shot looks better, less fake, too. It might also be the origin of the trope where the fate of someone hanging on for dear life is at the mercy of stitching.