The Oscar-nominated Steven Seagal vehicle Under Siege hit screens in October 1992. A significant hit, it opened the floodgates for a wave of films which attempted to recreate the magic of John McTiernan's Die Hard, Suddenly, four years after the release of the Bruce Willis classic, every studio was putting a relatable everyman (or sometimes Steven Seagal) up against armed terrorists within a relatively confined space: a ship, a train, an airliner.
Even today, the "Die Hard scenario" remains popular and the films which attempt this approach form an intriguing subgenre. Surprisingly, though, there is one film which very successfully copied the format of Die Hard which isn't too often discussed - and that's the film's very own sequel, Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2.
When the debate over which Die Hard clone is best comes up, something like Under Siege or Sudden Death tends to win out. However, there's a strong argument that Die Hard 2 deserves a shot at the title. After the surprise success of the original film, 20th Century Fox were keen to distribute a sequel. Steven E. De Souza and Doug Richardson based a script on Walter Wager's novel 58 Minutes and Harlin was recruited to direct. In the end, Die Hard 2 made a huge $240 million at the box office - dramatically eclipsing the original film, launching the franchise in earnest, and helping to prompt the wave of imitators.
Sequels are often criticised for their rigid adherence to a successful format - and Die Hard 2 is no exception. At first glance, it can easily be written off as a clone, "Die Hard in an airport". On closer inspection, Harlin's sequel is quite inventive in the ways that it distances itself from the original film, carving out its own niche while feeling very much of a part with its predecessor. Lacking the novelty of seeing John McClane for the first time, the superb performance by Alan Rickman and the masterly direction of McTiernan, Die Hard 2 doesn't have the iconic feel of the original, but it's an excellent sequel and a better riff on the format than any of the later imitations.
While many imitators have chosen another very constrained setting for the action, Die Hard 2 expanded things significantly by trapping John McClane within Washington Dulles International Airport. The new setting not only allows for much higher stakes - with a thousand passengers trapped on planes unable to land due to the terrorist scheme - but is also more varied than Nakatomi Plaza. McClane explores underground tunnels, a half-completed annex, the control tower, and runways as he battles the villains. The script also makes effective use of the airport as a world in itself, by including characters like airport police chief Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) and and chief engineer Ed Trudeau (Fred Thompson).
John McTiernan altered the motives of the villains in Die Hard from terror to theft because he wanted to lighten the tone. Hans Gruber merely claims to be a terrorist in order to stall the authorities. Die Hard 2 also does something interesting with its villains, despite the more conventional, darker tone. The crack mercenaries led by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) are disaffected American soldiers who believe that freeing drug-dealing despot Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero) will strike a blow against communism. The clear political subtext is a criticism of the US government's actions during the Iran-Contra affair.
Sadler lacks the suave approach of Alan Rickman, but makes up for it with his sheer, callous ruthlessness: the scene in which he calmly causes a packed British airliner to crash and kill everyone on board is one of the coldest moments of villainy in action cinema. The theme of US servicemen going rogue must have seemed quite novel in 1990, even if in Die Hard 2 they are allied with a foreign villain. In 1996, Ed Harris would portray a more noble US military villain in Michael Bay's The Rock - albeit one willing to threaten San Francisco with a cache of nerve weapons.
Die Hard 2 has even more spectacle than its predecessor, enabled by the broader setting. There is even a snowmobile chase, which is hardly what John McClane is associated with but which works well in context. The fights and shootouts are more carefully constructed and bloodier, so the sequel feels more like a full-blooded action film even if it lacks the mythic quality of the original. Die Hard has deservedly become a Christmas tradition - but by iterating intelligently on the formula, Die Hard 2 should be essential festive viewing as well.