There has never been such a question capable of as much discord and outrage amongst the film loving community as “What’s your favourite Christmas film?”
One such an answer that is often the cause of grievance and controversy is John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988). For those who adore the season’s staples such as White Christmas and It’s A Wonderful Life, and modern favourites such as Elf and Love Actually, the idea that a film about a showdown between a single NYPD officer and a group of vicious terrorists is even considered a Christmas film is, frankly, disgusting.
Well, sorry haters, but it turns out that Die Hard is actually part of a long tradition of non-conventional Christmas flicks – we have an extensive catalogue of Christmas Horrors for example, from Black Christmas in 1974 to Krampus in 2015. Christmas even makes its appearances in the most unlikely of plots: Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, an Orwellian black comedy, is a prime example, as is the legendary crime thriller The French Connection. However, neither of these examples are considered Christmas movies (not even in the alternative or ironic sense), and rightly so. Christmas isn’t the focus of these films and is in fact used to highlight the darkness and evil of the stories it’s used in. That’s not very festive at all!
How Can a film Be Considered a True Christmas Movie Beyond the Mere Inclusion of the Holiday?
If we ignore the blatant capitalist message behind nearly every mainstream Yuletide film, we should consider the real message behind the original Christmas Story – The Nativity of course.
Pushing past the shepherds, kings and angels, Christmas is essentially the tale of light shining in the darkness, living in the hope of reconciliation and redemption. These are therefore the essential themes of any real Christmas film. Natalie Hayes of BBC Culture, in her article “The Magic Formula that Makes the Perfect Christmas Film”, noted that for a film to be considered a true Christmas movie, it must include the following elements: desire, a touch of magic, the value of family, and of course a dose of trial and tribulation for our heroes to overcome.
As hollow as some of these films seem to be to the lovers of a more Traditional Noel, the likes of Jingle All the Way do in fact meet these requirements, and with Die Hard being one of the most exceptional and beloved action movies of all time, it seems a very reasonable choice as a favourite Christmas film too. But what has come to my notice is the criminal overlooking of another alternative festive watch, one with striking similarities to Die Hard, released only a year prior: Lethal Weapon.
Like Die Hard, Richard Donner’s film meets the pre-requisites of a Christmas Classic and is again one of the most popular action movies from the 80s, likewise spawning an iconic franchise. Have we been duped all along with putting our money behind the inferior flick, or is Die Hard truly the superior of the pair? On the basis of which film boasts the truest Christmas Spirit, let us experience the most exciting of movie battles… Die Hard vs Lethal Weapon.
Is there an element of desire in these films? A want for something unattainable?
This is the first of the many uncanny similarities between Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, as both display a desire for a return to normality.
In Die Hard, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is flying to L.A from New York to see his wife Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) on Christmas Eve, who works at the Nakatomi Plaza which is throwing a party. It becomes apparent that this is the first time John and Holly have seen each other in over six months and that they are more or less separated (especially as Holly is now going by her maiden name). It is revealed that Holly’s move to L.A. for a once in a lifetime promotion became a point of contention in their relationship – we don’t know exactly why, but it’s easy enough to make some assumptions: back in 1988, finding out that your wife is making more money than you would be an enormous shake up in the family dynamic, possibly too much for some men to handle. It is clear though, that although they are estranged, their marriage isn’t finished – Holly and John obviously still have feelings for one another, but it’s mixed in with a great deal of hurt, stopping them from seeing eye to eye. Thus we have the desire element: John wants a return to normality, the re-establishment of his traditional family set up (very nuclear, with the man being the breadwinner and all), but more importantly he desires to be a part of his family’s lives again.
Lethal Weapon has a more convergent plot than Die Hard.
It begins with the daily life of two LAPD police detectives – Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a fairly buttoned-down distinguished officer who enjoys the comforts of marital and familial bliss (and is learning to try to age gracefully), and Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), a seemingly unattached man who is a total loose cannon on the job, wreaking havoc in his wake. The plot gleefully puts this odd couple together. It is Riggs who is the festive focal point of the movie as it his character that embodies the required desire element. Riggs’ careless and dangerous behaviour at work is suspected to be caused by suicidal tendencies after recently losing his wife in a car accident. There are occasions where it seems Riggs indeed wants to end his life, but this is actually more the desire to be reunited with his wife – the desire to be in a loving relationship again, the desire to have purpose.
It seems to be contradictory to the spirit of Christmas to have the film focus on the likes of depression and suicide, let alone in a film with probably the most insensitive approach to these topics, but that would be ignoring the fact that one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life, is about the divine intervention of an Angel working to stop a man from taking his own life on Christmas Eve. Die Hard is also depicting a common theme in Christmas fare, which is the impending breakdown of the family unit seen in the likes of The Preacher’s Wife and The Santa Clause. Technically both films are winning Brownie Points on that front, but the desire element is far more visceral in the case of Lethal Weapon: a shot of a teary-eyed Riggs shakily placing the end of the gun in his mouth after looking at the wedding photos of his dead wife is truly impactful.
The magic we could see in the likes of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon is not going to be in the traditional vein: no angels, no reindeer, no pixie dust, and very sadly no Santa Claus! That does not mean, however, that the magic they do have is not completely spine-tingling.
At first glance, the magic in Lethal Weapon is rather elusive, but it becomes apparent that the touch of Magic is indeed Martin Riggs, or really more Martin Riggs’ unorthodox policing methods:
“You’re not trying to draw a psycho pension! You really are crazy!”
In the real world, Riggs’ behaviour is not the kind to praise or laud, but Riggs’ apparent death wish makes him an almost unstoppable crime-fighting force – a lethal weapon. From deescalating a possible shootout by scaring the life out of a perpetrator, and saving a potential jumper’s life by throwing himself off the building whilst cuffed to them, it can be said Riggs gets the job done (in the most thoroughly entertaining way possible). However, his magical powers aren’t fully activated until he and Murtaugh are captured by the movie’s villainous drug barons – is it the electric shock torture or the power of new found friendship with Roger Murtaugh? Either way, Riggs is propelled into overcoming his captors and killing every bad guy that stands in his way, all in the name of rescuing his new partner. By the time we reach the climax, he is brutalised and half-drowned, yet he still manages to subdue the film’s Big Bad, Joshua (Gary Busey), by the power of his thighs alone. Magic.
With all that said, John McClane smirks and replies with a “Hold my beer.”
Die Hard is a more plot-driven story which lends itself to even more glorious action movie magic. It is made clear from the very beginning that McClane possesses the power of snarkiness, but the storming of Nakatomi Plaza by Hans Gruber’s (Alan Rickman’s) team of terrorists/thieves, catches McClane with his pants down (or rather with his shoes and socks off), leaving him to watch helplessly as the revellers of the office party are rounded up as hostages and Holly’s boss Mr Takagi (James Shigeta) is murdered. Luckily a present from Santa Claus re-establishes his cocky self-assuredness:
“Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.”
In the 2 hour run-time, we witness McClane relentlessly wiggle his way out of tight squeezes using the meagre resources at his disposal (which he usually attains by annihilating some hapless bad guy), whether its irritating Gruber with smart-ass comments through a stolen walkie-talkie or tossing the body of a man out of the window in an attempt to attract help from the outside. It is once McClane manages to get the attention of the LAPD (the corpse-tossing worked a treat) that the real magic begins, which is the revelation that McClane is better than everyone else alive, including you – ironic given that he spent the first half hour desperately crying out for help.
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John McClane resolves the terrorist siege single-handedly despite the presence of the LAPD, SWAT and the FBI; in fact McClane saves these apparent bozos from the machinations of the terrorists several times (whilst being mistaken as some sort of psycho killer to boot). Such a magical moment includes McClane blowing up a whole floor of terrorists (without miraculously harming any of the hostages), thus stopping their rocket launcher onslaught against the unsuspecting SWAT teams attempting to storm the plaza. Another noteworthy moment is when he rescues all the hostages from certain death seconds before some idiotic FBI agents unwittingly blow up a helipad they were gathered on (and as if saving countless lives isn’t enough, he narrowly escapes this chaos by leaping off the building with only a fire hose to save him from gravity).
It can’t be denied that the police politics of this 80s classic would be unnerving to modern eyes with its idolisation of McClane’s almost vigilante brand of justice, but with a healthy dose of self-awareness Die Hard is the ultimate power fantasy; one that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The exact kind of magic that you would need and want at Christmas.
As a basic siege film, the physical dangers faced by John McClane in Die Hard are of a much greater intensity than that of the leading duo in Lethal Weapon: the action is non-stop and quick paced, and far more shocking and gory. However, whilst Die Hard is driven by its plot, Lethal Weapon is more character focused, and as a consequence the psychological hurdles presented in Lethal Weapon are much more immense than those seen in Die Hard, despite the huge amount of peril Holly and John McClane face.
The Value of Family
It is now time to consider how much family is valued in these films; starting with Die Hard…
Is this film not just a metaphor for marriage and the active battle that is maintaining such a relationship?
It has to be confessed that it’s not exactly hard to be initially disappointed by John when we first meet him. It appears he has let his fragile masculinity get in the way of his marriage as he struggles to cope with his wife’s flourishing career. But my goodness is this an incredible attempt at reconciliation; the man walks over broken glass barefoot for Christ’s sake!
As we all know, big grand gestures can often be empty and meaningless; it is changed behaviour that is the real apology. So what a brilliant way to finish off this metaphor with Hans Gruber being defeated by John and Holly working together; transforming their marriage into a partnership – a union of absolute equals. It earns their riding off into the sunset, entangled in each other’s arms, and so gives us that desired cosy Christmas feeling – excellent!
Lethal Weapon, by comparison, has no such romantic metaphor; it instead depicts the very real devastation caused by unimaginable loss.
Martin Riggs is a man who is constantly putting himself and others in danger through his reckless behaviour, as he is now without purpose. He does state that it is “the job” that has so far prevented him from eating one of his own bullets, but the way he achieves results still points to a blatant death wish.
It’s when the initially dubious Murtaugh begins to let his guard down and allows Riggs into his inner sanctum, inviting him into his family home, that we see a transformation in Riggs. For you see, the central criminal scandal of Lethal Weapon – ex Vietnam War Special Forces officers turned drug baron mercenaries – most deeply affects Murtaugh; he is the most entangled and has the most to lose from this situation. By actually giving Riggs a chance (whose life literally hangs in the balance if he can’t find a working partnership), Riggs no longer lives dangerously for the sake of trying to feel alive whilst consumed with grief, he instead directs all of his ferocity towards protecting Murtaugh and his interests; this deep sense of caring spreads to the wider community surrounding him, seen when he is willing to grapple in the mud with Joshua after he murdered his fellow officers.
Lethal Weapon, in the contest of greatest redemption arc, takes the victory: Riggs is quite literally pulled from the jaws of death by the power of found family through his partnership with Murtaugh – they even share Christmas dinner. This transformation from death to life proves that Lethal Weapon values family the greatest.
True Christmas films are affairs of great emotion, our heroes often go through hell to then be redeemed with the happiest of endings. This is true for both Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, but it is proven that Lethal Weapon boasts the most intense and emotionally driven Christmas tale of hope.
All you Die Hard fans may have to reconsider your all-time favourite Christmas film, but if you guys don’t change your mind, there is nothing but respect for you: Die Hard is pretty kickass.
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