Saturday, December 24, 2022

A Die Hard Christmas and Other Holiday Action Tales

"We hadn't intended [DIE HARD] to be a Christmas movie, but the joy that came from it is what turned it into a Christmas movie."--director John McTiernan
Traditionally, when most folks think Christmas movies, they think IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983), and NATIONAL LAMPOONS CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989). Heck, there's a segment of the population that views the Thanksgiving favorite PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) as a Christmas movie. 
The holiday favorites of Christmases past and present are typically dramas, musicals, comedies, and sometimes a combination of those genres. Christmas Horror notwithstanding, Action movie cinema has been known to intertwine holiday gift-giving with exchanges of gunfire even if the aura of Christmas gets lost in all the big action set-pieces. 
For years there's been a lot of back and forth about DIE HARD's status as a Christmas movie. There's already been numerous articles about it both for and against; so this take tosses in some additional angles that posits the innovative and influential John McTiernan classic as a definitive Christmas Action Movie. For comparative purposes, a handful of other Tough Guy movies bearing gifts of high-octane holiday cheer are presented; but few with the level of Santasmic grandeur as DIE HARD.

DIE HARD isn't just about a NYC cop battling terrorists in an LA high-rise; it's about a man traveling cross-country to spend Christmas with his estranged wife and their children. DIE HARD is Bing Crosby's crooner favorite, 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' with gun-battles and C4.

One of the reasons people disregard DIE HARD as a Christmas movie is the fact it hit theaters in the summertime on July 15th, 1988. Also, most don't see an explosion-filled action flick as befitting of the holiday spirit. Surprisingly, a lot of seasonal movies were not released during the month of December.

Still, some yesteryear festive favorites like A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938) and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) were released during the month of December on the 16th and 20th back in '38 and '46 respectively. 
However, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), a movie about Santa Claus, was a summer release, out on June 11th of '47. HOLIDAY INN (1942), a Fred Astaire musical that begins on Christmas Eve, hits the holiday again, and ends on New Years Eve the following year, debuted August 4th of '42. 
Then there's the immortal 80s holiday tale, A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983), told on November 18th, 1983. Since radio stations have begun playing Christmas music earlier and earlier each year--even before Thanksgiving, you may as well count the Bob Clark favorite as a Christmas release. Starting in 1997, the family favorite began a 24-hour marathon on Christmas Eve and wrapping up late Christmas Day.
Further examples of holiday movies coming out months before December are 1947s IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (occurring on April 19th) and 1954s WHITE CHRISTMAS (falling into theaters October 14th).
It's not an action movie, but GREMLINS (1984), Joe Dante's hit Horror-Fantasy, is my choice for the ultimate Christmas picture. Another summer release, it not only oozes seasonal ambiance and holiday tradition in nearly every scene, it's a fantastic Christmas Card to fans of Horror and SciFi movies. Virtually every scene has some nod or in-joke to a vintage genre movie. It also manages to horrify younger children due in large part to a story told by Phoebe Cates--divulging the dark details of how she learned there was no such thing as Santa Claus. 
Like DIE HARD, it's not about Christmas, but the holiday plays an important, and integral part of GREMLINS' plot. And like DIE HARD, without the yuletide devices, it wouldn't be the same experience. Christmas is why Billy gets his Mogwai as a present; and Christmas is McClane's whole purpose for being in California.
Outside of its holiday trappings, something else that's unique about DIE HARD (1988) is that despite never hitting the #1 spot at the box office, it's one of the most transformative action movies ever made. For at least the next ten years, virtually every action movie was billed as "Die Hard on a..." (insert object of land, sea and air here); as was the case with SPEED being "Die Hard On A Bus"; and UNDER SIEGE being "Die Hard On A Boat" to use two examples.
For the purposes of this article, an action movie set at Christmas time must meet this criteria to be included among the Christmas movie cognoscenti: 
1. The season of giving must be established at the beginning, if not early on. 
2. There must be at least one pivotal Christmas song somewhere in the film. 
3. Holiday iconography of any kind must be visualized throughout. 
4. Some element of the holiday must be utilized to either accentuate or further the plot.
5. "Merry Christmas" must be spoken at least once over the course of the movie.

DIE HARD meets all of these.

Rule #1 is established in the first five minutes. Sleigh bells ring on the soundtrack as the title appears. We see a huge Christmas tree in the lobby of Nakatomi Plaza, the prime location of the movie. We're introduced to Holly McClane (played by Bonnie Bedelia) who immediately mentions Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, Ebenezer Scrooge, Santa, and gift-giving.

Meanwhile, NYC cop John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) has arrived in LA carrying a big teddy bear to see his family and is picked up by limo driver Argyle. After some humorous exchanges where the two men bond, McClane asks Argyle if he can play some Christmas music. 
There's three Christmas tunes on the soundtrack (including 'Winter Wonderland' and a holiday rap tune, 'Christmas In Hollis'). When we're introduced to Sergeant Al Powell (played by Reginald VelJohnson) inside a convenience store, an instrumental version of 'Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow' plays; and he sings it upon exiting Nakatomi Plaza after receiving a call to check the place out; so rule #2 is settled.

Even the bad guys embrace the yuletide feeling. Theo (played by Clarence Gilyard) does his own villainous version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' in relation to the four SWAT guys trying to enter the Plaza. A short time later, Hans Gruber (a devilish performance by Alan Rickman) reminds a continually fretted Theo that it's Christmas and a time of good cheer is in store for them once they accomplish their mission of stealing $640 million in bearer bonds. 

"If this is your idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Years!"--Argyle
For the third, the script finds ways to remind viewers of the holiday by way of props and dialog. This occurs for the entirety of the film's 2+ hours. Even during action sequences, you'll see props like Santa's and Snowmen tucked in somewhere in various shots. 

There's Christmas displays in offices and halls,
Ornaments and lights adorning the walls;
Diminutive Santa's keep watch atop desks with care,
While the rupture of hot flames and gunfire strew bodies here and there.
Other than Christmas being the reason McClane is in California, #4 on our list is realized by two key moments in the movie where seasonal signatures punctuate a scene and or further the plot. The first involves McClane's inaugural encounter with the terrorists. John kills him and sends him back to the others on an elevator decked out in a Santa hat with the words written in blood on his shirt, "Now I have a machine gun--Ho Ho Ho"
The second time the fourth criteria is met occurs during the big climax. McClane confronts Hans who, with Eddie, the last member of his group left alive, has taken Holly hostage. With rapid-fire, cowboy-style precision, McClane takes out Eddie (played by Dennis Hayden) and wounds Hans with a pistol; concealed behind him, strapped to his back with Seasons Greetings tape! 

As for the fifth example that designates DIE HARD as a Christmas film, "Merry Christmas" is uttered five times throughout the film's running time.
"DIE HARD is a Christmas movie."--screenwriter Steven E. De Souza
If you want to have some fun and go deeper with the subject, whether it was intentional or not on the part of screenwriter Steven E. De Souza, Holly, the greenery, has Christian connotations. The prickly leaves are akin to the crown of thorns Christ wore the day of his crucifixion while the red berries represent the blood He shed while nailed upon the cross. In another biblical reference that ties the husband and wife together, McClane suffers in Christ-like fashion after being forced to run barefooted across broken glass; leaving a trail of blood from his sliced feet as he crawls to safety. 

With its plot of a man seeking to rekindle his marriage on the most special of holidays; while impeding a Euro-Grinch from stealing millions in stocking stuffers, DIE HARD certainly qualifies as suitable for your festive film rotation.

ROCKY IV (1985)

The ROCKY series has had scenes denoting the most wonderful time of the year, but only ROCKY IV gave Christmas time a prominent role. It's not enough to make the most popular film in the franchise a Christmas movie, though. But let's see how it stacks up on our Christmas Action Movie List. 
It's 36 minutes before the holiday is mentioned, and that's at the press conference for the match between Balboa and Drago in Russia. A reporter asks Rocky "Why Christmas?" and his response is just "That's what I was told". There's one Christmas tune heard, and that's 'The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)'
The atmosphere of December 25th is largely felt just prior to, during, and after the big fight. You see a brief shot of a small Christmas tree in the left corner of Rocky's dressing room (seen more openly in the more recent ROCKY VS. DRAGO cut which you can read our extensive comparison HERE). Shots of Rocky's son, his friends, and the robot wearing a Santa hat watching the fight back home are intercut a few times during the match. 'Merry Christmas' is spoken twice. 
While ROCKY IV has the strongest holiday presence of the series, it only meets two of the criteria, so it doesn't qualify. It's such a great movie with a feel-good, Christmas Day ending, you could probably get by slipping it into your yuletide rotation.

Funnily enough, you'll spot that time of year turning up in other Stallone actioners like FIRST BLOOD (1982) and even COBRA (1986). Stallone had a hand in FIRST BLOOD's script and wrote the ones for ROCKY IV and COBRA, so either Stallone liked setting his movies around Christmas or it's just a coincidence. 
For the former, it's resigned to decorations in the town they filmed in. Since shooting began in mid-November 1981, much of this was likely indigenous to the townsfolk and businesses than to the production. Christmas is literally a background decoration visible in the town sequences at the beginning and final assault at the end. It has no bearing on the plot at all aside from adding to the pyrotechnics when Rambo's one-man war on Christmas hits "Holiday Land", the town of Hope.

The latter clues you in on the season right at the beginning when a crazy bastard takes over a grocery store with all sorts of trees, lights, snowmen, Santa's and candy cane decorations. Right after, Cobretti goes home, eats some cold pizza, turns on the TV and watches the last moments of a Christmas cartoon. Close to an hour in, there's a 'Merry Christmas' sign hanging up at an outdoor gift shop next to a gas station. And that's the end of a not-so-very COBRA Christmas.


INVASION USA is sometimes cited by action fans as a Christmas movie. In reality, only a portion of the film occurs sometime leading up to December 25th. It takes 36 minutes before viewers are made aware it's sometime near the holiday season.
Mikal Rostov (played to evil perfection by Richard Lynch) and some of his men scope out a suburb where the citizenry are putting up Christmas trees outside while an instrumental of 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' plays on loud speaker. Rostov takes a bazooka and blows several homes to smithereens with the families still inside. This sequence almost feels out of place considering there's no prior recognition of the approaching season. 
Roughly fifteen minutes later there's a sequence inside a mall where we hear an instrumental of 'Joy To the World'. The stores are adorned with trees, wreaths and gift-wrapped boxes inside the store windows. It isn't long before a terrorist in a suit tries to blow up the place with a bomb inside a bag. A customer who thinks he's forgotten his package attempts to return it and the killer runs off. A mall cop joins the chase and we get a good look at some really cool Christmas displays you don't see much of anymore. One has the name 'Toy Land' emblazoned on it. 
Remember those kinds of mall displays? They were sometimes in the middle of the shopping center and you'd stand in line with your parents marveling at the animatronic exhibits while cringing in fear upon finally sitting on Santa's lap.
Going back to the movie, some other terrorists show up and begin mowing down consumers till Matt Hunter (played by Chuck Norris in TERMINATOR mode) shows up and flattens the bad guys with his twin uzis. The shoot'em up action turns into a spectacular vehicular chase sequence with Chuck pursuing the bad guys through the mall and destroying everything in sight. Christmas stuff is flying all over the place. 
And that's the end of the identifying holiday elements of INVASION USA. The movie only realizes two of the five Christmas criteria, that being the inclusion of a song and 'Merry Christmas'  being exchanged during the explosive neighborhood sequence. It's jam-packed with iconography, but these are only seen in the two segments described above. However, those two Christmas sequences are arguably the most wildly offensive and thrilling to be seen in an action movie.

On a side-note: three years before Hans Gruber did it, Chuck's character is repeatedly called 'Cowboy'  by the easily agitated Dahlia McGuire (played by Melissa Prophet). Since a cut scene reveals how Chuck knows where the terrorists are going to be, you could play up the Christmas angle and pretend Norris's Matt Hunter is a proto-action Santa Claus:

He sees what you've been plannin',
He knows where you're gonna be,
He knows you're evil and no good
It's "time to die", you can guarantee.

With Bobby Helms hit holiday tune 'Jingle Bell Rock' playing over the opening of the box office bonanza buddy cop classic, it's Glover and Gibson blowin' up bushels of fun for 2 hours. #'s 1-4 of our Christmas criteria are met right off the bat. Following a wild opening of a half-naked gal committing suicide, half-crazed cop Martin Riggs makes a drug bust on a Christmas tree lot and lights up a few of the dealers hiding among the selection of fir, pines and cedars.
A short time later, Riggs watches BUGS BUNNY’S LOONEY CHRISTMAS TALES (1979) while attempting suicide due to his inability to cope with his wife's death. This is an interesting addition to Shane Black's script in that it gives weight to the urban myth that suicides are higher during the holiday season. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE probably was the origin point for this belief. Riggs eventually overcomes his death wish, realizing hopelessness isn’t the reason for the season—it’s scattering empty shell casings and lighting up cars and buildings in ways Christmas lights simply can’t do.

Other Christmas citations include cops singing 'Silent Night' down at the precinct. Murtaugh and Riggs buy hot dogs from a guy running a hot dog stand wearing a Santa hat (and check THE LOST BOYS on the marquee behind them). While it starts off with a hefty accent towards the holiday, the ambiance eases off in the middle portion. During the last 30 minutes, it's back in a big way. At the end when Busey goes to Murtaugh’s house, A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938) is playing on the TV. A Christmas tree has a note on it that sets up the wild martial arts fight between Gibson and Busey.
Reinforcing the season, singer Darlene Love plays Danny Glover's wife (and in the subsequent sequels). Love is the original Queen of Christmas, the immortal voice behind 1963s heavy holiday hit 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' on the album, 'A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector'. The oft-covered tune has become a Christmas mainstay and featured in movies including the opening credits of GREMLINS (1984).

#5 on our list is met with four utterances of 'Merry Christmas'. As Riggs and Murtaugh finally accept each other as partners, they officially become good friends in the closing moments--preceding Elvis's 'I'll Be Home For Christmas'.

Let’s also take a moment and mention the end-credits dedication to the legendary stunt/high-fall specialist, Dar Robinson: "This picture is dedicated to the memory of Dar Robinson one of the motion picture industry’s greatest stuntmen".
The half-naked woman who jumps to her death at the beginning of the movie is Jackie Swanson. You may know her best as Kelly Gaines on seasons 7-11 of the smash TV comedy classic CHEERS (1982-1993). Dar trained her to do the 35ft jump onto an airbag (for the movie, she's hundreds of feet up). What was special about this stunt was the airbag was covered with a life-size painting of the parking lot and cars. It's a perfect visual trick where the editing makes it appear she's about to make contact with the roof of a car. Dar also doubled for Mel Gibson during a second high-fall later in the movie. 
It would be Dar's last completed work in his profession before a seemingly simple stunt on the movie MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY (1987) ended his life. Losing control of his dirt bike going downhill at a high rate of speed, Dar went hurtling over a cliff, plummeting 40 feet when he hit a rock ledge before being impaled on a tree. Reportedly, it took two hours before anyone could get to him. Dar Allen Robinson would die en-route to hospital on November 21st, 1986. (Top: Robinson with Cathy Lee Crosby in 1980 when he drove a car off the Grand Canyon; Insert: Riggs gets a jumper to jump off a building while Santa Claus watches on the street below)

LETHAL WEAPON is a unique blend of action and exposition you rarely see. It's also a bonafide Christmas Action Movie for those looking for rowdier tinsel-time fun.

"DIE HARD is not a Christmas movie. It's a goddamn Bruce Willis movie."--star Bruce Willis
DIE HARD 2 (1990) 
The sequel that saw the return of everyman John McClane (essayed once again by a wise-ass Bruce Willis) hit theaters on July 2nd, 1990. Like its predecessor, it too was set on Christmas Eve. But outside of the seasonally enhanced opening and ending sequences and snowy setting, the holiday atmosphere is missing. 
Even if a few Christmas-themed deleted scenes had been kept in, the bigger, more expansive sequel wouldn't recapture the holiday feel of the previous movie. Christmas is just a bookend device the second time around. It might make your Yule list by default, but otherwise there's barely any presents under the tree.
I COME IN PEACE, aka DARK ANGEL, is an intriguing SciFi-Action "buddy cop" picture starring Tough Guy Dolph Lundgren that's set at Christmas time and packed with gun-battles, car chases and lots of spectacular explosions. And it's directed by stuntman Craig R. Baxley. At the start, Jesse Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE; FORBIDDEN WORLD) is listening to a Christmas CD when the player in his car goes haywire, causing him to become distracted and crash into a bunch of Christmas trees. Noticeably pissed, Vint says, "Merry fuckin' Christmas!"  before his car explodes (along with all the trees) and his meeting the intergalactic drug dealer played by European giant Matthias Hues. 
On the song front, 'O' Come, All Ye Faithful' and 'Joy to the World' are heard in the first ten minutes. In another scene, a bail bondsman is drinking eggnog and singing along to 'Auld Lang Syne' while watching IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), before his own is extinguished by the drug-trafficking alien; so that's three of the criteria met.

About 45 minutes in, Arwood "Larry" Smith (played by Brian Benben) pulls out a scope-fitted .357 Magnum, stating it's a "Christmas present from my mother!" At the end, there's a car chase that ends up inside a heavily decorated mall complete with a Santa Claus looking bemused at the chaos. Unfortunately, the mall destruction here doesn't come close to the impressive Christmas demolition of INVASION USA.

Along with Vint's expletive-enhanced idiom, Dolph Lundgren's character says "Merry Christmas" at the beginning; so the fifth stipulation is met, leaving only #4 unfulfilled. So I COME IN PEACE narrowly misses passing the test; but it's a holly jolly good time just the same.

Tim Burton's BATMAN RETURNS is a darkly comical, darkly romantic comic book fantasy bordering on horror. No need to check it twice, this sequel is easily the darkest film on this list. It's also heavy on the Christmas aesthetics; effortlessly hitting them all with super-heroic precision. Within the first fifteen minutes, Gotham is draped in a white Christmas; Christopher Walken is introduced as "Gotham's own Santa Claus" while tossing presents into the crowd; and then the city is terrorized by The Penguin's skeletal and carnivalesque minions emerging from gigantic gift boxes.
Later, Penguin presents Christopher Walken with toxic waste handed to him inside a Christmas stocking; and shortly after, he rescues a baby in a Santa suit to fool the public into believing he's some sort of seasonal savior, if a deformed, misshapen one. Rule #'s 1,2,3 and 4 are all wrapped up with #5 soon to follow.

The holiday connotations continue an hour in as we watch Selina Kyle window shopping while 'Come All Ye Faithful' plays. Bruce Wayne walks up to her and asks her out on a date for a tree lighting event. This becomes one of the key sequences in the movie wherein the holiday is integral to the plot. Penguin and Cat Woman intend to frame Batman for the murder of the Ice Princess (played by Cristi Conaway). Decked in Ms. Claus tresses, Penguin unleashes a whirlwind of bats that send her plummeting to her death from the top of a building just as hundreds of bats fly out of Gotham's enormous Christmas tree. Batman then finds himself in a compromising position with Catwoman lying atop him underneath a mistletoe.
Towards the end, the two meet up at a Christmas party and dance under the mistletoe for the second time, only now as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. This is another example of the film using a key holiday element to further the plot. There's a love-hate pendulum swinging back and forth between the two characters. Adding the mistletoe to the mix bridges the sexual tension between them. Christmas is a time for love, after all. 
Finally, in the closing scene, Bruce sees the shadow of Selina in a back alley, picking up a black cat he finds. Returning to his car, Alfred wishes Bruce a Merry Christmas--to which he responds in kind, "... and goodwill toward men... and women." 

With all five of our criteria satiated, BATMAN RETURNS joins DIE HARD and LETHAL WEAPON as genuine Christmas movies; and, in large part due to Tim Burton's visual eye for Fantasy, it's easily the most holiday-influenced movie on this list.

In the 2020s of today, Christmas Action pictures have taken on a new form. Movies like 2020s FATMAN (starring Mel Gibson as St. Nick) and VIOLENT NIGHT (2022) revolve around Santa Claus himself, placing him in ridiculously wacky scenarios that may have been somewhat influenced by the creative cult horror movie item SANTA'S SLAY (2005) starring Bill Goldberg as a sadistic Santa Claus. These heavy-metal holiday actioners have put Santa Claus front and center, taking kid-friendly films such as SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE (1985), and THE SANTA CLAUS series (1994, 2002, 2006), and transforming them into dark fairy tales for adults.
Till the days of Tough Guy Cinema return where the holiday can be cleverly woven into the plotline leading to endless debates among film fans, old habits of "is it, or isn't it" will continue to DIE HARD. To quote-mingle John McClane and Bing Crosby's 'I'm An Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)'  tune from 1936, "Yippy Kay Yay, Muthafuckas" , and...

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