Tom Jolliffe ventures back to the 90’s, when three action icons made Die Hard riffs…
It’s often said that the buff action specialists of the 80’s, who were larger than life and almost comically unstoppable were slowly pushed out of the forefront of the market by more every man heroes. Die Hard is often pinpointed as the starting point which saw Bruce Willis rise to prominence, along with Mel Gibson. Later down the line we’d see the likes of Tom Cruise, Nic Cage, Keanu Reeves and then Matt Damon become action heroes. Schwarzenegger, Stallone and some of the action tough guys in their wake were deemed outdated by the late 90’s. Additionally, Die Hard just became a phenomenon, creating its very own sub genre. It redefined an outline that had been done before, but nothing had ever quite hit like Die Hard. From then on films became classified by the location the action took place. The first film was in a skyscraper. The second in an airport. Over the years we’ve seen ‘Die Hard on a’ Plane, Train, Submarine, Nuclear bunker, Alcatraz, a mountain, a mall, a sports stadium, a rock concert, in a school and many, many more. Die Hard at a Yoga retreat. That probably hasn’t been covered…yet.
Perhaps with some degree of irony, some of the unstoppably tough action hard men of the 80’s and 90’s would do their own riffs (almost a pact with the devil). So today I’m gonna look back at three from three of the biggest action names in the early 90’s .
Die Hard on a Mountain, in Cliffhanger
The early 90’s to this point had been something of a disaster for Stallone. He’d finished the 80’s on a downward slope, and began the decade with a critical and commercial beating with Rocky 5. His forays into subsequent comedies fell flat too. He had a welcome hit with Cliffhanger. Stallone had reportedly been in consideration for Die Hard back in the day, among a slew of bigger names before they opted to cast the TV star, Bruce Willis. How close he came, who knows, but as Willis was rising in prominence and headlining the ‘guy next door/guy down the bar’ action hero, Stallone it seems, felt that doing his own spin on ‘terrorists invade x’ could reap rewards.
Stallone stars as Gabe Walker. He’s an every man, played in about as every man a way Stallone had managed in a long time (probably since First Blood). He was still unshakably Stallone, but Walker felt a little more fallible. Whether it’s the opening that seems him unable to save a stuck climber plummeting thousands of feet to her death, or the perpetual hound dog expression, he’s a tortured soul. Stallone plays it with a level of sincerity too. This isn’t the kind of ego show some of his 80’s classics were. He never feels the need to show us how shredded he is either.
With great visuals full of vertigo inducing wide vistas of the high altitude locations, and some brilliant action, Cliffhanger is one of the better early 90’s action vehicles. It may fall into melodrama at times, but Renny Harlin’s stylish visuals certainly make for a constantly engaging film. It also marks something of a consistent trend for some of Stallone’s better 90’s films, perhaps something he may not fully embrace, but he gets overshadowed somewhat by his co-stars, whether it’s John Lithgow’s villain, or the always great, Michael Rooker as his cohort. Everything leads to a satisfying conclusion after a film loaded with slightly gut wrenching aerial stunts.
Die Hard on a Boat, with Under Siege
Not so much an attempt to re-invigorate a flagging career, this Die Hard on a boat action classic was one that cemented rising star, Steven Seagal as one of the absolute best in the business. Seagal purists might also say that it moved away from some of the gritty martial arts fighting he’d displayed in his early run from Nico, up to Out For Justice. What Under Siege did though, was up the scale of what he’d been doing, and likewise expanded his draw from a strong and dedicated action niche market, to becoming an ‘event’ star (even if this remains his one successful tent pole film).
In the grand pantheon of ‘Die Hard in a’ films, Under Siege might just be the best. Seagal has a strong presence and shows some charisma. Likewise his trained and industrious persona is utilised to perfection here as the former Navy Seal, busted down to cooking duties, uses his nous to out-think his foe, whilst simultaneously being able to out-fight them. Interestingly, perhaps with a studio hedging their bets slightly, the film isn’t hugely Seagal-ccentric, with a lot of screen time resting in the experienced gravitas of its two principle villains, brilliantly played by Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey. Through the 90’s, as a villain pairing, there were few as good (Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo in Hard Target another brilliant duo of wronguns). Lee Jone’s was a year or two from bursting forth from a CV packed with genre films, to being a weighty dramatic icon when he and director Andrew Davis re-teamed for The Fugitive (winning TLJ and Oscar).
Like Cliffhanger there are some good set pieces, and the confined setting of the ship doesn’t become a hindrance, with Davis keeping a tight grip on the pacing and the aforementioned villains gripping the attention when Seagal isn’t battering people. Additionally, in a role that could easily have become annoying, Erika Eleniak is an engaging sidekick as the playmate who gets whisked along for the ride.
Die Hard in An Arena, with Sudden Death
In perhaps the weakest of these three, we have Van Damme with Sudden Death. It was a film that seemed to cool Universal Pictures’ interest in the Belgian (alongside some of his excessive fee demands). The box office failure ended a line of successes. Even the critically derided Street Fighter, pulled in almost $100 million across the world. Sudden Death may as well have been called slow death, as it essentially kicked off a run of commercial failures for Van Damme, ultimately leading to his fall into straight to video land.
That being said though, the film has dated fairly well. As a slice of Die Hard genre theatrics it ticks every box well. It’s well shot, with Peter Hyams’ atypically gritty and naturalistic cinematography. Van Damme in fairness, among some other films of that time (prior to a slight descent into drugs that effected his two team ups with Tsui Hark, Double Team and Knock Off), was trying to work and improve as an actor. He’s quite good here, in this well paced film that builds to a good finale.
Like most ‘Die Hard in a’ films, it almost becomes a villains film. John McClane as a hero battling hostile takeover from criminals/terrorists, is head and shoulders above the pretenders as an interesting protagonist. In Sudden Death, Powers Boothe is the chief villain and he relishes his screen time with a confident, charismatic and devilish swagger. It’s really great stuff from him, and it’s a huge part of why the film still holds up quite well. Whilst Cliffhanger gave Stallone a boost and Under Siege launched Seagal to the high table, unfortunately for Van Damme, Sudden Death was the death knell, but it still ranks as an enjoyable time passer on his CV.
What’s your favourite of the three? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth. Join me soon for a special look at Dolph Lundgren doing Die Hard (something of a regular recurrence in his CV).
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.