John McClane. Hans Gruber. Nakatomi Plaza.
If you immediately recognize these three names, then you are one of the many fans of the 1988 hit "Die Hard," arguably the greatest American action film ever made. Director John McTiernan's pedal-to-the-metal flick pitted New York cop McClane (Bruce Willis) against terrorist-robber Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his gang in a Los Angeles office building on Christmas Eve.
Featuring a lead who was best known at the time for his comedic work on the hit TV series "Moonlighting," "Die Hard" was a surprising critical and commercial success: It earned $160 million in today's currency, plus 94 percent positive reviews on the rotten tomatoes.com scale. And it not only spawned four sequels -- the latest, "A Good Day to Die Hard," which finds McClane helping his son battle some really bad guys in Russia, opens Thursday -- but influenced action films for all time.
"Die Hard" is "a very pure drama. It's very elemental, in pure storytelling, a unity of time, place and action." says Steven E. de Souza, who co-wrote (with Jeb Stuart) the screenplay. "Everything takes place in one location, it appears to be pure time, and it grips you by the throat and keeps going."
"It's one of the smartest action films and balances great action with an amazing story," adds Katrina Hill, author of "Action Movie Freak." "McClane is witty and snarky, which makes him likable, but bad-ass on top of it all. He's not invulnerable; he's more the average guy. It's a great underdog story."
"Average" was, in fact, a major reason why "Die Hard" was such a hit. In an era when muscle-bound lugs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled the box office, a normal guy like Willis, well built but not pumped up to exaggeration, came as a breath of fresh air. And the witty, often snarky one-liners that came out of McClane's mouth, highlighted by the iconic "yippie ki-yay..." made the character even more likable.
"As brutal and unflinching as it can be, the movie is fundamentally joyful," says Eric Lichtenfeld, author of "Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie."
"It was a new format and new hero for the genre. John McClane was a counterpoint to the muscular supermen of the era. And the wit of the screenplay made for a more relatable action hero."
There was also this: McClane was a family man, and had flown from New York to L.A. to reconnect with his wife and kids. That element alone has made "Die Hard" the one action film women seem to embrace as much as men.
"He wants to save his marriage; that is his overriding goal," says de Souza. "It's a very sort of pure, elemental thing. All the steps he takes are to get his family back. It's a very personal action movie; you don't have to believe in an altruistic demigod."
Adds Lichtenfeld: "Women respond to it because Willis is genuinely vulnerable, he suffers . The love story in 'Die Hard' is handled with integrity and credibility. He's a vulnerable character. He's a reluctant hero, regretful about how he's handled his marriage."
All these specific elements -- one guy against a maniac (or maniacs) in a confined space -- combined to not only make "Die Hard" a hit, but one of the most imitated films of the decade. All of a sudden, Hollywood started churning out films that were referred to as "Die Hard on a Bus" ("Speed"), "Die Hard" on a Boat" ("Speed 2"), "Die Hard on an Airplane" ("Air Force One") and "Die Hard on a Battleship" ("Under Siege").
And the beat goes on. Universal Pictures recently bought a pitch for a potential film called "Speeding Bullets," a "Die Hard"-like buddy cop flick. And Sony picked up a script called "White House Down," described as "Die Hard in the White House."
But for John Moore, director of "A Good Day to Die Hard," the original film's influence has, in a sense, been negative. Moore, who says "Die Hard" is "a brilliantly scripted movie," wishes "it had more influence. Scripts would be better, action movies would be less a vacant waste of your time, which 'Die Hard' isn't. Its influence is resounding because it's on a high altar. Aspirationally, we should be lucky to repeat that brilliance."
Whether the new film will be up to such high standards is still to be decided. But Moore says Willis "is the guard dog at the gate of what's appropriate for a 'Die Hard' movie," which means the actor, now 57, will not be "playing on this vaguely ridiculous irony, 'I'm too old for this,' as jumps off the exploding building.
"Bruce is saying 'I'm not gonna jump off a -- building.' It's Bruce saying we're gonna play the guy the age he is, and we're gonna find the good stuff without constantly referring to the age issue. It's not constantly making AARP jokes."
No matter what, it seems certain there will be "Die Hard" movies for as long as Willis can stand up on his own power.
Here's what you need to know about the four previous "Die Hard" movies:
DIE HARD (1988)
PLOT On Christmas Eve, New York cop John McClane tries to save his wife and others who are held hostage in a Los Angeles high-rise by a gang of terrorist robbers.
BOX OFFICE (in 2012 dollars): $160 million
DIE HARD 2 (1990)
PLOT McClane fights off a gang of rogue military officers who have seized control of Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C.
BOX OFFICE (in 2012 dollars): $205 million
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995)
PLOT McClane and a store owner race around New York, trying to stop a deadly bomber.
BOX OFFICE (in 2012 dollars): $150 million
LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007)
CAST Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Maggie Q
PLOT McClane takes on a Internet-based terrorist group trying to shut down the United States.
BOX OFFICE (in 2012 dollars): $148 million