Diving out of Helicopters and Into Our Hearts

From the first time he ran over broken glass, barefooted and bloodied, while blindly firing a submachine gun at European terrorists, America fell in love with every-man-turned-hero John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, in the 1988 blockbuster "Die Hard."

Nearly 20 years later, the movie continues its awe-inspiring dominance over the action genre after it was dubbed the Greatest Action Movie of All Time by Entertainment Weekly -- a title that the "Die Hard" franchise's fourth installment, "Live Free or Die Hard," hopes to assume, when it is released this week.

"There's no question 'Die Hard' belongs on the top of the list," said Scott Tobias, film editor for the Onion's A.V. Club. "It's the template for the modern action movie -- slick, action-packed, loaded with gleaming hardware and big explosions."

But it takes more than gleaming hardware and big explosions to make an action movie great.

"You have to have great characters -- a great hero and a great villain," said Arthur Sarkissian, producer of the "Rush Hour" movies. "You start with great characters, then you add a good script. You have to have all of it come together."

There Goes My Hero

Larry Rippenkroeger, who actually drove in car chases and leaped off buildings as a stunt double for Willis during the filming of "Live Free or Die Hard," believes that a great action hero is defined not by mechanical heroism but by his humanity.

"It's about a reluctant hero having to rise to the occasion," he said. "Being able to relate to the character is a big part of it."

Sarkissian agrees. "The hero must be down-to-earth, very organic and not macho. But by the same token and at the right moment, you feel the strength that they have."

"They have to feel like ordinary guys with that underlying toughness," he added.

A brief look at a few of the leading characters of Entertainment Weekly's Top 25 action movies seems to confirm this "ordinary guy" theory: Willis' John McClane is a New York cop only in L.A. to save a failing marriage in "Die Hard." Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," is an archaeology professor with a fear of snakes, and in "The Matrix," Neo, played by Keanu Reeves is a nerdy hacker who's most memorable one-liner is "whoa."

"It may sound simple, yet many action films have very forgettable, cookie-cutter and unimaginative heroes," said John Campea of themovieblog.com. "When we don't care about or like the hero, all the action in the world can't save the movie."

The Value of Villainy

A great hero alone cannot make a great movie without his opposite, however.

"'Die Hard' had one of the best villains of all time in Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber," said Campea. "Darth Vader, the liquid-metal Terminator, Agent Smith, the Predator. Almost every single good action film has a strong villain."

Like the hero, the audience must also have a connection, albeit negatively, with the villain's lack of humanity.

"You have to feel that you hate the guy for what he is, not what he does," Sarkissian told ABC News. "If he slices someone's throat, that's just an addition to what a sick pig he is. Alan Rickman [Hans Gruber] in 'Die Hard' is one of the best bad guys I've ever seen."

In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Bruce Willis described the impact a good villain character can have on a film, something many action movies tend to forget:

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