The action genre changed forever in the summer of 1988 with the release of Die Hard, whose surprise summer blockbuster status made an instant leading man out of Bruce Willis, previously best known for headlining the lighthearted mystery TV series Moonlighting. As the endlessly besieged cop John McClane, Willis found his signature role for a five-film series spanning 25 years. For the ultimate Die Hard movie binge, we suggest watching them in order to see how the series not only evolved over time but reflected the changing style of the action movie itself.
And just a few days ago, director John McTiernan put a longstanding debate to rest—he argues that Die Hard is indeed a Christmas movie. In fact, it was inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life (“Specifically, the Pottersville sequence,” McTiernan says).
Given the frequent holiday songs and presence of props like Santa hats, this is ideal viewing for the festive season (or any time of year). Loosely based on Roderick Thorp’s much darker 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the story of an apparent terrorist siege on Christmas Eve at the towering Nakatomi Plaza in L.A. introduced a new kind of action hero who displays fear and vulnerability, including a wince-inducing sequence involving broken glass. With its classic villain portrayed by Alan Rickman and epic score by Michael Kamen, this film directed by John McTiernan set the template for countless “Die Hard on a …” imitations involving everything from planes to boats.
A sequel to the hit original was inevitable, with Renny Harlin stepping in this time to direct a tale based on a different unrelated crime novel, Walter Ager’s 58 Minutes, this time using airline terrorism to fling McClane and his wife, Holly (played again by Bonnie Bedelia), into another life-or-death struggle on Christmas Eve. Complete with a surprisingly brutal mid-film plot twist and more outlandish death scenes for its many bad guys, the film was another smash and ensured McClane would live on to quip another day.
After a five-year vacation, McClane was back in the saddle again with McTiernan returning to direct a very different entry in the series. This time New York City is terrorized by bomb threats from Simon (Jeremy Irons), who’s holding a personal grudge tied to the first film, and McClane must team up with average joe Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) on a cross-city chase to prevent a catastrophe. The first film in the series not based on a novel, this had been intended as both a standalone feature and then a Lethal Weapon sequel before ending up in its current incarnation.
After the initial trilogy, John McClane seemed to have hung up his guns for good, but then he made a big comeback after a 12-year hiatus, with Willis now sporting his trademark shaved head as an older, wearier hero. Cyberterrorism becomes the primary hook here with a pre-Justified Timothy Olyphant handling villain duties with a plan to demolish America’s vital infrastructure. Largely shot around Baltimore, this would be the only film in the series with a PG-13 rating (as opposed to an R); however, that had little impact on the amount of action involved or its welcome reception from action-hungry audiences.
John McClane’s last cinematic adventure to date keeps the ongoing ties to the hero’s family with son Jack (Jai Courtney), a CIA agent trapped in a Russian prison while another globe-threatening scheme unfolds around him. Budapest stands in for the Moscow scenes (which comprise the bulk of the film along with a perilous trip to Chernobyl), and though Willis has vowed this will be the series finale, rumors about a reboot or TV series continue to pop up. If that isn’t enough for your Die Hard marathon, enjoy an amusing chaser with Willis briefly reprising his character in the 1993 action movie spoof, Loaded Weapon 1 (which happens to star Samuel L. Jackson before he became part of the official series).