Tom Jolliffe offers up ten action films set at Christmas…
It’s almost time to pull your cracker and polish your baubles. Yep, Christmas is upon us. This means a festive period with a watch list of decidedly Christmassy films. By law we’ll all be watching Home Alone, The Snowman and It’s a Wonderful Life. Christmas is also renowned for debate. It could be political discourse around your well-stuffed turkey, but it might be a debate on that age old question (well, that 34 year old question); ‘Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?’ There’s actually no debate because the answer is yes.
Die Hard is so culturally iconic with its Christmas connection now, that whether the festivities and themes are overtly Christmassy or not, it has now become a Christmas film. Die Hard isn’t the only action film to be set at Christmas though. There have been a few. For some of those, the time of year is a passing point, occasionally limited to mise-en-scene and the odd dialogue exchange. I’ve gathered up a selection of 10 action films, set over Christmas and stuffed them into my sack and I’m about ready to empty it upon you. You may decide just whether the following constitute ‘Christmas movies’ or they’re merely set at Christmas. Additionally, to broaden your action horizons I’ve looked beyond the historical top shelf of video store staples, and ventured to the dustier bottoms to pull out a few straight to video specials for your perusal too.
Here are 10 Christmas-set action movies:
Dark Angel (I Come in Peace)
Though I included the US title, this should only ever be known as Dark Angel, because that what it was called in my video store. A legendary staple back in the day and a firm favourite that first appeared to me, dazzling like a beacon in a friend’s older brother’s video collection. Dark Angel is set at Christmas. Det Jack Caine has just reappeared after disappearing for 8 days (8 fucking days!?) and is trying to take down a drug dealer called Victor Manning. Only there’s a slight problem. He’s about to encounter a drug dealer from outer space, get partnered with a by the book FBI agent, and have to try and salvage his relationship with his on/off girlfriend. It’s probably the most fun film in Dolph Lundgren’s CV, which has gained plenty of cult appreciation over the years for a film with flying CD’s, one liners, crazy amounts of exploding cars and an iconic role for German behemoth, Matthias Hues (who along with some lifts, manages to make Dolph look small). So much fun. Christmas is referenced a number of times, and though it’s not particularly in the spirit of the season, it has become a Christmas time staple for me. The US title, which is a line Hues repeats several times throughout the film exists only to set up Dolph’s finishing line the final time Hues utters, “I come in peace”…”And you go in pieces…asshole.”
Crime is a disease…and Santa Claus is the cure. Okay, not Santa, but Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone). Cobra is a film I’ve always found somewhat underrated. It is very lithe and there’s no depth (a lot was trimmed for the theatrical cut), but it’s a blisteringly non-stop action spectacle which has some horror sensibilities laced throughout (from director, George P Cosmatos). In high-def it looks positively spiffing and Stallone is playing perhaps the most stoic caricature of an ‘action hero’ he’s ever played. I think it’s dated quite well as an excessive, stylish (if hollow) action film. Brian Thompson heads up a villains cult/biker gang and Brigitte Nielsen is better than she often gets credit for (or perhaps not as bad as critics hammered her for back then). Christmas reference is somewhat minimal, body count is somewhat high.
Okay, we’ve already established that this is not only set at Christmas, but it IS a Christmas film too. Die Hard is also one of the greatest action movies ever made. The idea of an antagonist band of terrorists taking over a building only for the fly in the ointment to get in their way wasn’t new when John McTiernan made the film, but the levels it hit as far as quality, and the iconic status that came so soon after release essentially made sure Die Hard could birth its own sub-genre. Remind yourself this festive season, of a time when Bruce Willis was full of beans and full of sparkling sardonic personality. One of cinemas great underdog action heroes, John McClane makes the perfect wrong place wrong time hero, whilst Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is one of cinemas great villains. From fists with your toes, to the official signalling of Christmas happening (Gruber’s Nakatomi swan dive), Die Hard is perfection.
SEE ALSO: It Ain’t Christmas Without Die Hard
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
One of the early examples of the Die Hard sub-genre was in fact the film’s first sequel. The first of four sequels with increasing ludicrous titles, Die Harder takes the classic late 80’s/early 90’s sequel approach; just repeat everything you did first time out and here it goes right down to the festive setting and sees John heading to the airport to meet with Holly. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice I hear you ask? Well John wonders the same and stumbles into a terrorist plot which thus gives us Die Hard at an airport. It’s of course not a patch on the original, lacking much of the genuine moments of character and drama (those which are here are a little forced). That said, thanks to Renny Harlin’s visual flair, some solid villainy from William Sadler and good support throughout the film, it’s a great watch and makes for a perfect double bill partner for the original around Christmas time.
Shane Black broke out as one of the freshest and most exciting genre writers in Hollywood thanks to Lethal Weapon, and in doing so began a continuing fascination with Christmas settings in his films. Lethal Weapon perfected the buddy film formula, proving the best example of the action buddy film that there’s probably ever been. Great action courtesy of the late great Richard Donner, great performances from the two leads, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover (As mismatched police partners) and a brilliant score (from Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton). There’s great villains in the form of Mitchell Ryan, but particularly his chief henchman played by Gary Busey.
Time for a straight to video offering. Take a Christmas setting, some buddy banter between two actually well matched partners (Gary Daniels and Sugar Ray Leonard) and you’ve got something Shane Black-lite. Then for good measure throw our main hero Gary into an Escape From New York scenario…THEN, get PM Entertainment to deliver this yule tide gift. It’s an action gem, that actually has a little more seasonal spirit and warming charm than a PM action fest might ever have had the right to. Daniels is perfect foil for PM at their inspired best, providing plenty of kickboxing action and being in amongst the array of barnstorming stunts they lay before him. Not limited to junk yard, explosion fuelled set pieces, a multi-story car park car chase, and scenes featuring not only a biker gang terrorising Daniels, but a gang of roller hockey punks. No, it makes absolutely no fucking sense, but it’s great and Christmas lights and street decor even get used in the fight sequences. The action is genuinely as impressive as anything you’d have seen in the $100 million studio club, and loaded with imaginative choreography and crazy stunts. Additionally, despite a restrictive budget, the almost real-time story gives this immediacy and pits Daniels in a nicely realised, post riot City backdrop, replete with burning car-carcasses, trash and more.
Project Shadowchaser 2: Night Siege
In the halcyon days of video stores, perusing the action section was much like perusing the sweets isles in Woolworths. A joyous experience. Many VHS covers caught my eyes through the years, and films about Cyborgs, and/or Terminator riffs tended to catch my eye regularly, whether that was Nemesis (Albert Pyun’s cyberpunk opus) or Project Shadowchaser. The original film was the kind of brain child I like. “Die Hard is great right? And Terminator is also great, right?” “Yes Stephen (Lister)…” “Well, then lets put the two in a mother-fudging blender!” Thus, a film was born, which would then birth a straight to video franchise which took an interesting arc from first, to final instalment (the latter two featuring space exploration and turning a headlining Android, into an alien, if memory serves). The first Shadowchaser riffed Die Hard, with Frank Zagarino playing his android more in line with Arnold’s Terminator. In the sequel however, terrorists take over a nuclear facility with Android leading their charge. This time he’s a little bit wild and just a bit crazy (more in line with Roy Batty). Zagarino revels in the role, a film not unlike The Rock, or maybe more succinctly, Lundgren’s Peacekeeper, but preceded both. It’s also got a more distinct Sci-fi touch (action sci-fi was something director John Eyres did with non shortage of flair). The only man to stop Zagarino is Bryan Genesse. who here is to janitors what Steven Seagal was to cooks in Under Siege. It’s entirely ludicrous and ramped up with cheese, but this one time pound-world bargain bin special is a lot of fun (the first is even better).
It’s not Christmas until Chuck Norris blasts Richard Lynch out of a window with a bazooka. A film that might represent Cannon Films’ action catalogue better than any other. A film that encapsulates the genesis of ‘Chuck Norris facts’ better than any other too. It’s an over the top, slightly nihilistic, slightly xenophobic and wholly jingoistic film, so lacking in irony that it creates its own new level of irony. Chuck Norris is the all-American twin Uzi toting hero (with a pet armadillo), out to take those pesky invading Russians down a peg or two. Said Russians not only have the gall to invade, but they do so at Christmas. There’s an almost comically sadistic streak to the terrorist group, led by Richard Lynch (brilliantly maniacal) as they cause chaos before Norris comes in to do some run and gun and save Christmas… and the free world to boot.
Die Hard in a shopping mall with Dean Cain pitted against Eric Roberts in a made for cable special. It’s not as dreadful as it sounds, in fact it’s kind of fun. Cain is kind of affable in this, coming not long after his run as Superman had ended and he shifted from TV star to TV movie star. Cain is a down on his luck cop, stripped of his badge just before Christmas, whilst his wife gets kidnapped by criminals. It’s down to the artist formerly known as Clark Kent, to save the day. Co-starring with Cain and Roberts is Erika Eleniak, no stranger to the Die Hard rip off, having co-starred with Mr Seagal in Under Siege. Roberts enjoys himself as the villain, by this point in his career, something he could do in his sleep.
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Shane Black does Christmas once again. Geena Davis stars as Samantha Caine, who has no memory before 8 years ago when she was found 8 months pregnant emerging from a River. Step forward to the present and she’s getting strange recollections she can’t make sense of. Soon her mysterious past catches up with her and her life is under threat. Turns out she has a nefarious past and likewise, a particular set of skills. Renny Harlin delivers plenty of spectacle. Davis is absolutely superb and gets great support with her mismatched partner, Samuel L Jackson. It’s got plenty of sharp Black dialogue, even if it’s not the tightest film he’s delivered (at least what has made it to screen). Vastly underrated, this deserves a bit more cult fandom. Davis appears as Mrs Santa, so it’s obviously 100% a Christmas film.
What are your favourite Christmas set action films? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth. With thanks for some useful suggestions, to the gents at The Schlock Pit (a font of all knowledge on straight to video and schlock cinema) and The DTV Digest (a great DTV review themed review podcast covering classic and contemporary).
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/