by Austin Casey | Staff Writer
Thirty years ago, one movie perfected perilous action sequences, gave birth to an A-list star, and made it feel like Christmas in July. That movie is “Die Hard,” (1988) and it holds up today. It didn’t set out to be a genre-defining film, but became one effortlessly. The film has a simple premise with expert execution. Average New York cop John McClane comes to L.A. to visit his wife, and coincidentally becomes the only man in a locked-down skyscraper who can save the day from a group of armed European terrorists. “Die Hard” is one of the most memorable movies of the 1980’s, with four sequels and countless imitations which have had mixed reception at best.
“Die Hard” is still viewed as a peak of the genre, but has anything come close to that peak in recent years? It goes without saying that there have been incredible action movies released since 1988. But what about this decade? These selections below aren’t necessarily the best action movies of the decade, but rather movies worthy of the distinct title: “Die Hard of the Decade.” A number of factors figure into my choices. It has to have been released within the years 2010-2018. It has to be R-rated and violent—no film suitable for children can be compared to “Die Hard.” It has to feel grounded and gritty, but contain action scenes and stunts that are impressive and memorable. Most importantly, it must feel fun and have a premise that is easy to follow with a clear protagonist and antagonist. Here are some nominees:
Logan (2017) Beloved comic book character Wolverine takes one last ride, smuggling a young mutant girl out of the United States into Canada in this neo-Western. This is a very well-made movie and easily fits the bill as far as grit and action are concerned. Blood and guts fly about, completely uncensored. The characters are few and the plot never reaches a point of confusion as it excels as a linear, grounded story. The problem is that this movie had me almost in tears by the end and there were many moments of gloomy desperation within it. That pervasive sad emotion in “Logan” is nowhere to be found in “Die Hard,” and that key difference in tone pushes them too far apart for this contest’s purposes.
Mission: Impossible- Fallout (2018) My personal favorite movie of the year so far and maybe my overall favorite action movie of the decade. It could almost be defined as an action epic of sorts, with a sprawling plot spanning across continents and with stakes affecting populations in the billions. Neither the scale nor the plot are very grounded or simple. “Fallout” is jam-packed with double-crosses and excess characters that can make it hard to keep up. While the action set pieces are unforgettable and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is a likable protagonist that would fit well in “Die Hard,” the overall tone of this movie is too out-of-control and bombastic. Hate to say it, but it is just too darn ambitious. Plus, we’re stuck with a PG-13 here and could use a sharper edge.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) “Kingsman” was cool, violent and overall a fun breath of fresh air in theaters the year it came out. Similar to “Fallout,” some of the action sequences in this are just breathtaking. Intense enough to have gripping tension, but also amusing and creative enough to have just the tone we are looking for. Genre-wise, however, this is too much a spy movie. Spy movies are arguably a subgenre of action movies, but its slickness feels different than the bluntness of “Die Hard.” Many have said it also just feels like the adventures of young James Bond, so it gets dinged for lack of originality. Lastly, (also similar to “Fallout”) I would say that since the plot is hard to sum up in a sentence or two, it feels ever so slightly too ambitious to be in consideration. Simplicity is key!
The Raid: Redemption (2012) This is an Indonesian action movie about a group of police officers who enter a slummy apartment block to raid a crime lord, but get trapped inside and must fight their way out. It gets a check mark on having a plot that is easy to sum up. The action (both martial arts and gunplay) is wonderfully executed and it’s as gritty as they come. “The Raid” is a great movie, but it can’t be considered “Die Hard” for two reasons. One, it’s exciting and tense but not quite fun, as the tone feels more like a somber art film than a blockbuster. Secondly, the setting is just a little too similar to actually being “Die Hard.” It’s nitpicky, but the characters in both movies are stuck in a high rise for 90% of their movies. It works for the movie, but it doesn’t work for this competition.
Dredd (2012) “Dredd” is a comic-book movie also restrained to one building, but with a sci-fi futuristic twist. Instead of having crime rule just the building, an entire dystopian megacity is overwhelmed by it. In terms of tone, it remains grim, albeit with just a smidge of playfulness thrown in. Violence gets a huge check mark, this movie gets shockingly gorey within the first five minutes. But the big divergence of this movie from “Die Hard” is the protagonist. Judge Dredd doesn’t seem to have much of a conscience and is completely unrelatable to the audience. He is an everyman like John McClane, but in more of a “heartless blank slate” manner than McClane’s “sassy dad and husband” demeanor.
Skyscraper (2018) “Skyscraper” has one asset that all these other movies don’t: the best action star of the decade in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He pours out as much charm as ever and is the perfect parallel to John McClane, at least emotionally. Physically it’s hard to view a hulking man made of muscles as an everyman, but he’s sympathetic nonetheless. The problem here is that the film falls into the trap of actually almost replicating “Die Hard” beat for beat instead of blazing its own trail. The PG-13 leaves much of the action unsatisfying and gets major points knocked off for being too scared to contain real violence.
Our “Die Hard of the Decade” co-champions:
John Wick (2014) This movie is essentially a revenge story where a retired professional hitman seeks revenge upon a group of thugs who have killed his dog and stolen his car. That one sentence is all it takes to get the audience hooked. In other words, exactly what we’re looking for in this contest. Keanu Reeves (as John Wick) has complete control of the screen, and while he is more stoic than McClane, Wick is still admirable and a bit crazy at the same time. The movie is violent, easy to follow, and well-executed, more so than its recent sequel. However if I had to point at one way that it doesn’t match with “Die Hard,” it would be that “Die Hard” continually ramps up to an exciting climax, while the final fight in “John Wick” is less memorable than some of the previous moments.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Action movies don’t generally get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but this one is special. “Fury Road” is relentless, and while it sometimes seems reductive that people refer to it as “that movie that’s just one big chase scene,” that’s music to my ears in picking a winner of “Die Hard of the Decade.” The post-apocalyptic setting might make it feel strange to compare it to the realistic 80’s action flick, but “Fury Road” is fast, violent, gritty, easy to understand and semi self-aware, all of which combine to make one of the ultimate rewatchable movies. To once again pick out a difference or two from “Die Hard”, I would say that the fact that this is technically the fourth movie in a franchise gets a few points subtracted for unoriginality and the two lead actors sharing protagonist duties produces a different vibe than watching our lone hero take on the world solo.
Conclusion: While action movies certainly aren’t dead and are still taking a variety of successful shapes and forms in this decade, it just isn’t easy to be effective in exactly the same way “Die Hard” was thirty years ago. The hardest thing to nail seems to be the specific tone. It just doesn’t seem easy to craft a movie that feels perilous but fun at the same time. “John Wick” and “Fury Road” may have done it best in my eyes, but throughout this exercise I felt that nothing may quite feel just as effortlessly exciting as “Die Hard,” and that’s something still worthy of celebration.