Essays

Hope in The Time of Chaos: How Action Films Make Great Christmas Films

Christmas films are usually a different beast from the typical movies made with the expressed goal of bringing hope in hopeless times. Normally, the inspirational aspect of these films comes not from extraordinary people or events, but from ordinary people with ordinary morals and failings. They come together in this time of year to find new meaning to their existence through empathy and love for their family and friends; or finding a short respite from the misery of the rest of the year through (as Tennessee Williams would put it) the kindness of strangers, or by a miracle that gives them a reason to continue living.

The season’s morals and reasons for existing are very old-fashioned and, at its core, contain very little cynicism. This gives its makers an unabashed reason to be as schmaltzy and emotional as they want to be, and thus Christmas films are sentimental beasts, targeting the feel-good centers of a person for maximum cheer. Even in such an apocalyptic year as ours, the sentiments that a Christmas film contains are powerful enough to give people joy.

Knowing that, the last genre people would think to pair up with Christmas films would probably be action, especially from the 1980s and 1990s. These films are not sentimental at all, and a significant majority of them do not care about finding the inner good in everyone. Instead, they are violent affairs that largely believe only in the worst that people can give, and sometimes they actively push for and reinforce harmful stereotypes about foreigners and non-white people in an effort to make it easier to root for the antagonists’ deaths. These movies can be great fun of course, and the killings can feel exciting and cathartic in a primal sense, but the issues with their portrayal of non-white cultures do keep them from being fully enjoyable in our more modern, multicultural society.

Yet in the times that action films and Christmas films have crossed, they’ve proven to be potent and transcendent pairings that highlight what makes each genre such crowd-pleasing affairs.

Lethal Weapon and the Importance of families

In Lethal Weapon, our two protagonists could not be more: one is widow Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), a war veteran and efficient killing machine whose mind has become unstable, to the point where he is considered by the in-house psychiatrist as too much of a liability to be a cop. The other is Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a family man biding his time till retirement, who follows the rules of the law as a way of keeping his family safe but who can be as skilled of a fighter as Riggs is.

Shane Black, the writer of the original Lethal Weapon film, likes setting his films in Christmastime. From an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he says, “Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days, a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives.” It’s an interesting observation, one that informs how he utilizes the Christmas setting as a way of forcing the growth of his characters, including Riggs finding a new family to fight for as he reassesses why he bothers living in the first place.

In Christmas films, a big part of where they find hope and meaning is in the idea of family: that the love and support we get from our loved ones can bring us meaning and a drive to go on and do good even as the world itself tries to push us down. The 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life contains some truly depressing moments where the protagonist, George Bailey, had sacrificed his ambitions and desires in an effort to make the lives of the people around him much better. In his lowest moments, he was planning on killing himself so that his family can get the $15,000 payout that his life insurance policy had. In the end, he finds his hope and joy in his family and friends, giving his life of sacrifices meaning by seeing how much the people around him appreciate what he has done for their lives.

The Christmastime setting feels especially potent in Martin Riggs’ plotline. This man is legitimately suicidal after his wife’s death, to the point where he has a special hollow-point bullet to use for when he does pull the trigger. In an early scene busting a drug dealer, Riggs gets taken hostage. Does he feel worried or scared? Does he even try to preserve his own life? Nope: he starts taunting the drug dealer and the cops as he tries to get them to shoot him. The desperation that exists in Riggs’ eyes is truly scary stuff, and it undercuts what would be, in normal circumstances, some fist-pump action moments.

Martin Riggs’ moment of hope comes from the importance of family, specifically Murtaugh’s family. It’s not in how he changed them, however, but in how they changed him, giving this man new loved ones to live and die for. Murtaugh and his family remind him of his humanity, and like his wife did beforehand, they give his life meaning, something to fight for. He’s a little goofier with them, a lot more willing to lower his walls. While furthering the friendship he has with Murtaugh, he forms a bond with Murtaugh’s wife Trish (Darlene Love) and daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe) and allows himself to care about their collective wellbeing. By the time Murtaugh’s daughter Rianne gets kidnapped, it makes absolute sense why Riggs would risk his life to save her.

If Christmas films highlighted the existential desperation that comes in a life that feels meaningless (like in It’s A Wonderful Life), Lethal Weapon shows that desperation in full force while reminding us that the loved ones that we surround ourselves with often give a new focus to that desperation without devaluing the trauma that created it before. It gives action films a much-needed boost of empathy for its characters, without becoming a saccharine show of how family solves all problems.

The dark, violent elements in Lethal Weapon (the trauma of Riggs, the death of Amanda Hunsaker, the continued specter of Vietnam in American society) amplify the contrast of Christmastime and the optimism that Murtaugh and his family represent to Riggs, clearly outlining why Riggs feels a renewed sense of hope with them: in a world of killers, Murtaugh’s kindness and decency stand out. His renewed meaning is found in this new family that has accepted him fully, scars and all, and by the end of the film, he joins them for Christmas as he partakes in the first peaceful moment he experienced in the film.

Die Hard and Finding Self-Redemption At Christmas

Die Hard is, of course, a uniquely transcendent film that marked a sea change in how action films were made, making them utterly focused and efficient while paving the way for films like The Fugitive and Speed to exist. It is also a unique Christmas film that shows a true redemption storyline for our main character John McClane while critiquing the culture that existed at the time (and continues to exist in our society).

John McClane is a uniquely human action hero then and now. In the 1980s, he was a subversive character to the emotionally shallow, muscular super-soldiers that were the action heroes popular at the time; the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers who killed armies of humans by their lonesome and survived impossible situations by the strength of their brawn.

As portrayed by Bruce Willis, McClane is a nervous wreck, someone who stands out in the rich corporate landscape that his wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia), thrived in. Coming into the movie, John looks uncomfortable with the decadence displayed in Nakatomi Plaza, from the limo to the office with the waterfall cascading down to the fancy drinks being served at the Christmas party.

He’s an easy person to sympathize with at this point, and before Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his band of thieves come in, he has a clear emotional problem to solve with his wife Holly: she furthered her career by moving to Los Angeles and using her maiden name, and he chose to be a cop in New York over moving with her to Los Angeles. At some point in the movie, this impasse between them needs to be resolved, or their relationship will not survive. It’s a dilemma that serves as McClane’s motivation throughout the film.

This kind of emotional motivation makes him an effective Christmas film protagonist. Christmas films like 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street or 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas usually revolve around protagonists trying to redeem themselves from mistakes of the past and using the generous and charity-focused season of Christmas as a way of showing their good side while learning how to rise above their failings as a person and be better people, whether it’s helping defend a man who claims to be Santa Claus or saving his wife from a group of thieves-disguised-as-terrorists.

That emotional motivation also stands in contrast to the action stars like Schwarzenegger or Stallone: he’s not this indestructible super-soldier (and we see him visibly get hurt in utterly painful ways, like walking through glass barefooted), but most importantly, he’s motivated by his desire to keep Holly safe. Throughout the movie, as his survival becomes more and more unlikely, he becomes regretful of how he treated Holly as she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career. Before the big climax, he even asks Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to tell Holly that he’s sorry, in case he doesn’t make it out alive.

These kinds of emotional stakes ground John McClane in a way that his peers couldn’t do. By 1988, Rambo became a symbol of American masculine strength; the motivations of Schwarzenegger’s characters (like the kidnapping of his daughter in Commando) feel secondary to the kill count or his pre-and-post-kill one-liners, and other action films in the West at the time were more concerned with imitating the two.

McClane, however, is framed as this ordinary man stuck in an extraordinary situation, and his decisions throughout the movie, starting with trying to contact the police the moment he escaped up until his go-for-broke gamble of taping his pistol behind his back as a way of outsmarting Hans Gruber one last time, comes off as desperate but well-thought-of attempts of keeping as many people alive as possible while he figures out how to outsmart the thieves.

It’s the best of both genres at once, offering a focused and heartwarming redemption story whilst keeping the action at a hard-boiled maximum, showing why, 32 years after its release, Die Hard still has a place in the pantheon of great films.

Strange But Effective Bedfellows

At the end of the day, people need relief from the hopeless daily grind that they find themselves in, a way to reconnect with the inner meaning of why they keep going. Christmas films and action films give that kind of relief in a differing way all by themselves. But put together, they make good bedfellows: aspects of Christmas movies ground the film’s emotional stakes in something realistic, while aspects of action films let the adrenaline rush and cathartic bloodletting fly with delirious imagination.

It’s obviously not the only way to tell a hopeful Christmas story by design, but such films show that more Christmas films should consider such an angle in telling their stories of hope and cheer, which may help them find new points-of-views in old Christmas values that they might not have seen before.

And in a time of hopelessness, a new perspective on traditional messages of hope may just be what society needs.

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