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:

"Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy."

And … Action!

Intelligence aside for the moment, an action movie is not an action movie unless it has some big shiny objects in the form of car chases, gunfights and a few good old-fashioned explosions.

"Action doesn't have to run from start to finish," said Campea, "but when the action is there, make sure it has the audience on the edge of its seat. It doesn't have to be extravagant either."

Extravagance is something that too many action movies focus on, according to filmcritic.com reviewer Pete Croatto.

"'Die Hard' to me is like eating a really good cheeseburger. One cheeseburger. I want my action and to be perfectly satiated, no more than is needed," Croatto said.

Stuntman Larry Rippenkroeger believes action movies should be "like a roller coaster ride" in which the plot should rise tension into climaxes that break with action-filled free falls.

Also, according to Rippenkroeger, there is a limit to how much and what kind of action the audience should see.

"Some movies have so much action that you just get exhausted. And for me, the action has to be realistic. When I see movies where it's just a lot of computer-generated stuff, I get bored," said Rippenkroeger, who is proud to say his work in "Live Free or Die Hard" uses very little computer-generated effects.

"Action for the sake of action is just not my bag," said Sarkissian. "You can dazzle people with cool scenes with car crashes and explosions, but you have to have the core characters and a serviceable story line."

Tell the Story Right

Even with great heroes and villains, a great action movie is more than a series of incredible explosions and car chases -- a decent story must bring it all together.

"This may sound simple, but many people don't think about the fact that unless you make a good, watchable film aside from the action itself, then the action will be forgotten faster than the popcorn bag is thrown away," said Campea.

"[Action] has to occur naturally in the script. If it doesn't tie in to what the movie is about or the feel of the movie, then it's wasted energy," said Pete Croatto, who cited a famous, absurd car chase scene in "The Blues Brothers," which he said would seem completely inappropriate in almost any other movie.

Croatto believes a viewer should be able to take the action parts out of the movie, describe it to a friend and have it still sound interesting.

"It has to be a good drama just with stuff getting blown up," he added simply.

Dying Hard at the Box Office

With such a seemingly simple formula, however, arguably no action movie has lived up to the standard set by "Die Hard" -- and, like its previous sequels, critics are wary of "Live Free or Die Hard."

"Using the word 'formula' is part of the problem," said Filmcritic.com's Croatto.

The Onion's Scott Tobias believes "great movies are usually defined by how they deviate from formulas, not by how they conform to them." He said the new "Die Hard" installment deviates too much from what worked so well in the first and has fallen into the trap of more generic action movies.

"...The die-hardedness of Bruce Willis' character has been pushed to ludicrous extremes," said Tobias, who was able to get a sneak peak at the movie last week, "He's no longer the resourceful, ordinary-guy type from the first movie. … In attempting to be 'bigger' than anything that's come before, the film loses track of the crucial bits of characterization and plotting that made the original so special."

Stuntman Larry Rippenkroeger, who was closer to the action than anyone, doesn't agree.

"It's right on par with the first one," claimed Rippenkroeger. "It goes back to that old school action movie stuff, just updated to a current subject."

Regardless of how "Live Free or Die Hard" is received, it will be hard for loyal "Die Hard" fans not to find themselves in the theater, hoping for one good, last, "Yippie-ki-yay, mother ..."