Twenty-five years ago, Harrison Ford starred in Air Force One, a tense action thriller that could be classified as “Die Hard On An Airplane.” In this film, Ford portrays the U.S. President, who single-handedly battles terrorists who hijack his airplane and hold everyone hostage in order to have a comrade released from prison. Air Force One is one of the better Die Hard knock-offs because the action sequences are intense and hard-hitting, Ford is a credible President and heroic fighter, and Gary Oldman delivers one of his greatest villain roles.
While Air Force One is first and foremost an action thriller, the plot is revolved around the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the basis of whether U.S. government officials should negotiate with terrorists to save innocent lives. Director Wolfgang Petersen is a filmmaker who tends to have his lead characters deal with difficult situations involving war and politics (such as In The Line Of Fire and Troy).
Die Hard is a pantheon amongst action pictures because it’s one of the first films involving a conflicted hero at odds against an army of villains who hold civilians hostage (generally for ransom, to seek global domination, or to achieve other evil schemes). What makes Air Force One interesting is that the Russian terrorists in this movie don’t hold hostages for money, but rather demand the release of one imprisoned man (a Russian general who’s captured during an elite U.S. military operation at the start of the film).
The heroic protagonist, President James Marshall, is portrayed by Harrison Ford as a nice guy, a firm leader, and a skilled combatant. It’s not every day that a Commander-In-Chief is seen getting physical with armed terrorists. However, as a Major General explains to the Vice President, Marshall fought in Vietnam, won the Medal of Honor, and has immense expertise in battle. Ford is perfect in the role because he convincingly displays his physicality in the action sequences, as well as emotion and seriousness during dramatic confrontations.
Similar to Die Hard, Marshall sneakily takes down terrorists one at a time, while also causing distractions for them, such as cutting wires to take out some fuel from the plane in an attempt to force an emergency landing. He also communicates with Madam Vice President Kathryn Bennett and members of his cabinet by phone in order to discuss the terrorists’ demands and how to defuse the situation. He also arms himself with an automatic weapon from the first terrorist he kills (an MP5, the same weapon used by John McClane in the first Die Hard), leading to a few shootouts. Marshall conceals himself well enough so that everyone (including the terrorist leader) doesn’t know he’s still on board the plane (since everyone believes he went on the escape pod, which doesn’t exist on an actual Air Force One plane but is a nice addition for the film).
While Marshall proves that he is a tough guy, he does get punched hard and knocked around by the terrorists. He is also shot in the arm, but like McClane and other strong heroes, he maintains his strength and determination throughout the plot. The plane itself is also a smart setup for this type of action film because there’s a constant sense of danger and claustrophobia, especially since the terrorists have all the hostages stacked in one room, and Marshall is mostly confined in the baggage deck, trying to communicate with colleagues and quietly plan his attacks against the villains.
Along with Ford’s committed performance as a strong President, Gary Oldman’s menacing role as terrorist leader Egor Korshunov is one of the great movie villains (alongside Alan Rickman’s Die Hard villain Hans Gruber) due to his serious demeanor, his loud yell, and his ruthlessness in shooting hostages in the head whenever his demands are not met in time. Most of the film’s unsettling moments occur when Egor kills a hostage, including a scene in which he forces Marshall (who Egor initially believes is a Secret Service agent hiding in the baggage deck) to come out, or he’ll kill the Deputy Press Secretary (which Egor relentlessly does). Like Gruber and McClane’s confrontations, Egor pushes Marshall to the limit when the President’s own wife and daughter are at risk of getting shot.
When Egor finally meets Marshall during the climax, their interaction is immediately intense, with Egor punching Marshall and shoving a gun to his face. Instead of money being the motivation behind the hijacking, Egor’s rage is political. He is convinced that the American government is evil for ruining Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Egor’s line to Marshall: “this infection you call freedom,” is especially impactful in terms of the villain’s point of view). Although Egor is an evil, unapologetic, and unsympathetic villain, he is a character who has deep internal anger and emotions behind his actions.
Ford and Oldman mostly run the show as hero and villain, respectively, but the supporting roles also stand out. As Madam VP Bennett, Glenn Close is calm and firm, showing resilience in an otherwise tense situation, holding her own when talking to the threatening Egor by phone. As Marshall’s family, his wife Grace (Wendy Crewson) and daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews) are also strong female characters who are fearful but speak their mind against Egor’s radical views. As the Secret Service agent who allows the terrorists to hijack the plane with automatic weapons, Xander Berkeley portrays a traitor whose intentions are never known, but he’s a quietly menacing character who pretends to be loyal to Marshall.
The late composer Jerry Goldsmith (who composed Rambo’s main theme) delivers a suspenseful and patriotic score that perfectly balances the action and drama in this film. There have been several actors who’ve portrayed great fictional Presidents: Bill Pullman from Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi epic Independence Day, Michael Douglas in The American President, and Martin Sheen from The West Wing. However, Ford’s Commander-In-Chief is the greatest because he can lead, give a great speech, fight bad guys, and deliver some great lines (“Get off my plane!”).
MORE: Indiana Jones 5 Rumored To Set Up New Lead To Replace Harrison Ford
While some might argue the Die Hard franchise could have ended after the first movie, Die Hard with a Vengeance shows the series once had potential.
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Harrison Ford Played The Best Fictional President In This Die Hard Style Actioner