DIE HARD VS. LETHAL WEAPON
Which is the REAL Christmas movie
By Rusty Ryan
Paper or Plastic? Miracle Whip or Hellmann’s? The Chicken or The Egg? Whatever.
Leave those conundrums to the Bookworms and Philosophers. We have more important issues at hand: Die Hard vs. Lethal Weapon – which is the REAL Christmas movie?
Neither was officially released during the Winter Holiday Season by their studios . Lethal Weapon and Die Hard were released during the Summer Blockbuster period of May of 1987 and July of 1988 respectively. Both have very similar DNA in the sense that these Action vehicles are set during the Christmas Holidays in Los Angeles. Both Start bleakly and feature emotionally damaged or flawed Police Officers who eventually experience their own “Christmas Miracles” after going through physical and emotional extremes. And make no mistake, both are exceptional movies on their own, with or without the Christmas setting.
So maybe the specific deciding factor should be which one has the special Christmas “magic” that we expect from our Holiday films that endure year after year? I humbly submit to you that is where DIE HARD hits it out of the park and emerges as the true Christmas movie. But not without a little Sleight of hand. Let’s examine them both:
Lethal Weapon comes out of the “Holiday” gate strong because Christmas is not only the time-frame but also helps push the storyline at times. It immediately begins with the opening song “Jingle Bell Rock” before a prostitute leaps to her death from a high balcony. Next we meet undercover Narcotics Detective Martin Riggs working a Christmas tree lot where it quickly becomes evident he has emotional issues and a possible death wish. That is solidified later when he puts a gun in his mouth while mourning his deceased spouse. Has the Christmas season made his loss even more unbearable? That is left to the imagination, but right before he pulls the trigger we see Bugs Bunny shouting “Merry Christmas!” This Looney Tunes version of “A Christmas Carol” playing on his TV is enough to jolt him back from the edge and live another day.
The rest of the movie is scattered with various Holiday/Christmas references in the background and climaxes with one of Director Richard Donner’s cleverest scenes. After having already dispatched the Head Bad Guy, Detective Riggs is now face to face with the final, and most lethal Henchman. The fight takes place at night on Riggs Partner’s front lawn. Donner frames almost every shot with houses in the background wrapped in Christmas lights while the foreground features a yard tree made of multicolored Holiday lights. To top it off, a open water hydrant is continually showering our fight participants. This combination of light glare and water mist give the whole scene a very “snowy” look. The fight is so good, we hardly notice but if you concentrate on the effects, its truly beautiful.
The film ends with Riggs wrapping up his suicide bullet in a nice Christmas bow and bringing it to his partner because he no longer needs it. He (and his dog) invited into his partner’s house to share Christmas dinner with his new extended family. Riggs now has a reason to live, and it’s a Christmas miracle. The movie fades out to the song “ I’ll be home for Christmas” and all is well.
As a Christmas movie, Lethal Weapon is very Christmassy but it’s Christmas by the numbers.
Die Hard’s story entirely centers around Detective John McClane reluctantly attending is estranged wife’s company Christmas party. The Christmas references and motifs are mostly cursory as Christmas is more of a background element and not pushing the story. But that is also the genius of this Holiday story. We are lulled into a sense of “Yeah, we’ve seen this before, anti-social tough guy and questionable husband systematically wipes out an entire army while tossing out funny one-liners and winning back his family. Lets turn off our thinking and just enjoy.”
Christmas highlights include a dead Bad Guy is dressed in a Santa hat with “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho” drawn on his shirt. (Try repeating that phrase in your mind without hearing Hans Gruber’s voice. It’s impossible). Die Hard also includes a rousing version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Although not originally a Christmas song, over the years it has become one. Our hero tapes the gun that eventually kills leader, Hans Gruber to his back with Holiday tape that says “Seasons Greetings”. Most of the time, Christmas is just a background element.
Then, along comes the final 5 minutes. The Evil Mastermind who had threatened McClane’s wife has already been eliminated. Time to wrap this up but this is where Director John McTiernan and Writer Jeb Stuart take us to the “Magic” place. Newly reunited Cop and wife walk out arm-in-arm (in heavy coats) amid a sweet musical score. The camera slowly pans their progress as they walk among swirling paper, smoke and debris billowing out of the destroyed office building. It looks more like a Hallmark movie where our couple strolls through a winter wonderland of wafting snow and Christmas lights.
The McClane finally comes face to face with the Sgt. Al Powel, the Cop who talked him through his ordeal over the radio. Suddenly, a previously dispatched Henchman jumps up and attempts to kill our Hero and his wife. He is immediately shot – by Stg. Powel!
OH WAIT – what just happened? This movie is not as much about the emotional healing of John McLane at all. Yeah, he was a hard-headed jerk, but that trope is common in lots of cop movies. This “Christmas miracle” was really about the redemption of Officer Al Powel all along! He was the emotionally damaged Cop in this story. Officer Powel had previously shot a kid by accident resulting in his complete inability to physically or emotionally perform his job. Especially when it came to the use of a gun. Al’s act of saving John’s life results in the redemption of his character.
About that time our missing Limo Driver, Argyle pulls up and puts the couple in the back of his car. Or dare I say, sleigh? Argyle quips:” If this is their idea of Christmas, I’ve got to be here for New Years!”
Car pulls out, camera pulls back, “Let It Snow” starts playing and I tear up! …..MERRY CHRISTMAS!