The debate has been raging for what seems like an eternity: is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not? This year, on the film’s 30th anniversary, the argument has intensified, going on longer and louder and, frankly, the endless litigation has grown tiresome. Besides, Die Hard isn’t the definitive Christmas action movie of the ’80s anyway; that label should belong to its game-changing brethren from 1987, Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon.
Of course, yours truly loves every ounce of Die Hard on a deeply personal level – enough to write an entire book about its director. Christmas movie or not, it’s a perfect film, and it doesn’t really matter what side of the argument you may fall, as long as you acknowledge its perfection, we can hang out.
But why is Lethal Weapon never mentioned in the same breath as Die Hard when the Christmas movie debate rears its head at the end of every year? This is a Shane Black screenplay after all, and Black regularly sets his films during the holidays (see: The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys for more examples). The opposing lives and situations of its two heroes, Riggs and Murtaugh, is a more succinct examination of the warmth, and the cold loneliness, that Christmas can bring.
Martin Riggs is a broken man who’s lost his wife in a tragedy. He is alone, and losing grip of his sanity a little more with each day that passes. Christmas clearly makes things worse for our hero to the point where he bites down on the business end of a Baretta in a harrowing early scene. And let’s not forget about the man standing on the ledge of the building (Michael Shaner), clearly distraught over the season. It’s a feeling so many people must endure every December, the sting of loss.
The death of Victoria Riggs in Black’s story represents the loneliness and isolation so many feel during Christmas, and as Martin lashes out to find a human connection, he finds one in the wholesome embrace of a loving family unit. Roger Murtaugh has everything. He has a loving wife and three adoring children, and his home – the multi-use facility on the Warner back lot – is an idyllic setting for a family Christmas (in fact, Murtaugh’s house also serves as the Griswold’s abode in Christmas Vacation). The lights are hung, the tree is trimmed, and all seems well, until Riggs hurtles headlong into his life, and an investigation into heroin dealing Vietnam vets upends everything in his perfect world.
The dichotomy of the Riggs and Murtaugh pairing shows us the lightness, and the dark, of the “silly season.” It taps into the emotional swings from person to person, and eventually Riggs finds he has a new family in the Murtaugh’s. He’s found healing and happiness in a true message of love and the importance of family, the Christmas Spirit surrounded on all sides by breathtaking action.
Christmas colors the margins of Lethal Weapon just as much as in Die Hard. It kicks off with Bobby Helms singing “Jingle Bell Rock,” and any TV set in the picture is showing some manner of Christmas programming. We first meet Riggs on the job at a Christmas tree farm, busting some coke dealers; the final showdown between Riggs and the psychotic Mr. Joshua (the great Gary Busey) is backlit by the Murtaugh’s holiday decorations. That is, until an unmanned patrol car slams into the front of the house and demolishes the tree.
The characters in Lethal Weapon regularly reference Christmas, and the season is always in the background somewhere. The same thing goes for Die Hard, true, and for my money it’s a Christmas movie as well. But Lethal Weapon has a certain universality to the themes Black is tackling in his story, and it goes beyond action spectacle and confronts the wild swings of emotion and the importance of family during the holidays.
It is, for my money, the ’80s Christmas action movie we should all embrace. But if you don’t, hey, as long as you recognize it’s greatness, we can still hang.