Guns firing, blood flying, goons dying, and an unlikely hero quipping before bringing down the big bad. Just your standard action movie, right? Now replace the blaring guitar or thunderous orchestra with “Jingle Bell Rock,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and “The First Noel.” Wait… is this a holiday movie or Lethal Weapon?
Every year, the debate rages on. Bruce Willis, spraying machine gun fire. Hans, nonplussed, killing the world’s worst yuppie scumbag Ellis. Al, the redeemed killer cop, gunning down Karl in a surprise display of heroics. Sure, John McTiernan, Jeb Stuart, and Steven E. de Souza’s Die Hard is a certified classic of the action genre, but is it really a Christmas movie? There are arguments for and against this, but for whatever reason, the controversy has coalesced around Die Hard and forgotten the real action movie that deserves to be in the Christmas canon, and that’s Richard Donner and Shane Black’s holiday classic, Lethal Weapon.
There are a lot of reasons why Lethal Weapon is the superior Christmas action movie aside from the presence of Darlene Love, and they can be divided into two camps: one on the technical side, and the other on the emotional. In the trailer for the 30th anniversary edition of Die Hard, 20th Century Fox added the tagline, “It’s the greatest Christmas story ever told,” but they forgot Joel Silver’s other big holiday action movie. Not only is Lethal Weapon more authentically a Christmas movie in terms of origin, but it offers more of the sweet holiday feelings that Die Hard just never bothers to attempt to engender in the viewer.
Remarks Like That Will Not Get You Invited to Christmas Dinner
20th Century Fox had owned the rights to Roderick Thorp’s 1978 novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, since they purchased 1966’s The Detective and adapted it into the 1968 film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra. Cut to the late 1980s and screenwriter Jeb Stuart was broke and needed work. A few calls later, and he’s connected to Lloyd Levin, the head of development of the Fox affiliate, The Gordon Company. The one request Levin had of de Souza? Keep the novel’s Christmas setting. Why?
Because Joel Silver, producer of Lethal Weapon and now Die Hard, said so. De Souza later told Dazed Digital that “one of our producers, Joel Silver, had made Lethal Weapon the previous year, which was also set during the holiday, and he had decided he liked all his movies to take place at Christmas, as they would then very likely be played on television every December, and we would all get residual checks. Obviously, he was right!”
The aesthetic argument made between Die Hard die hards and Lethal Weapon fans thus plays out like the world’s dumbest tennis match. “Die Hard takes place at a Christmas party, Lethal Weapon can take place whenever!” one party might say. “Lethal Weapon opens up at a Christmas tree lot being used as a front for drugs, Die Hard could take place at any corporate event!” shoots back the other. “‘Christmas in Hollis’ isn’t a Christmas song!” The argument persists until both sides are simply hurling insults at Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis, for obvious reasons.
There are some similar themes in both movies, yet we’d argue the redemption story for Gibson’s Martin Riggs carries much more weight than John McClane overcoming adversity and marital stress, and it’s the renewal of Riggs that makes Lethal Weapon the superior Christmas film. McClane overcomes being kind of a misogynist jerk threatened by his wife’s growing career; Riggs finds a reason to live and overcomes PTSD, loss, and loneliness thanks to his unwilling and unlikely partner: Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover).
A Lot of People Have Problems During the Silly Season
Martin Riggs wants to die at the beginning of Lethal Weapon. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Riggs is a dead man walking, everyone around him knows it. He lives in a trailer on the beach, watches The Three Stooges on a crappy little TV, drinks heavily, and, every so often, puts a specific bullet into the revolver he keeps under his pillow and tries to convince himself that it’s time to pull the trigger.
This is something Riggs has done before we ever meet him, but it’s more than suicidal ideation in the film. Throughout Lethal Weapon, Riggs is established as a guy who is willing to do the craziest stuff imaginable to stop the suspect in front of him. The movie opens with him doing a Three Stooges eye poke to heroin dealers, then running through a tree lot during a gun battle. Later in the movie, he handcuffs himself to a suicide jumper, determined to make the guy bring him down with him. Even when it’s just Riggs paired with unwilling partner Roger Murtaugh, it’s clear that Riggs isn’t acting crazy to get a pension. When confronted, he takes Murtaugh’s offered gun and puts it against his head, philosophizing about why it’s better to shoot yourself through the mouth and to use a hollow point bullet for maximum effectiveness. Murtaugh blinks first; Riggs is someone eager to die, so long as he goes out on his own terms.
The only thing that keeps Riggs getting up in the morning is the job. It’s Murtaugh’s misfortune that he’s got a head case riding shotgun. The two men are polar opposites, aside from their shared service in Vietnam. Riggs is young and white, Murtaugh is old and Black. Riggs is a friendless loner who never recovered after his wife’s tragic death; Murtaugh is a married man with a loving family. Everything Riggs owns fits in a ramshackle trailer; Mutaugh has a big house in the suburbs and a fishing boat. Both men are counting down the days. Riggs is counting down the days until he dies, and Murtaugh is counting down the days until he’s free to enjoy retirement with a house full of loved ones.
This contrast is what makes Lethal Weapon the perfect holiday movie as it encompasses both the warmth and bitter cold of the season.
Give This to Your Dad for Me, It’s a Present
When you lose important people in your life, you miss them every day. However, there’s no time where that absence is felt more strongly than during Christmas. It’s an acute moment of loss brought into greater relief by glowing lights, flashing tinsel, and empty chairs at family gatherings. Or, in the case of Martin Riggs, no family to gather with. Christmas can be stressful under the best of circumstances, and the farther Riggs gets from his happy memories with his wife, the closer Riggs gets to the breaking point, with the added weight of the holidays tightening his finger on the trigger. Until he finds a new reason to keep going during his first film’s Yuletide season.
Riggs is alone at the start of the movie because he pushes people away, but throughout the course of events in Lethal Weapon, he finds someone just as stubborn as himself in Murtaugh. He finally runs into someone who refuses to be pushed away, at first because he’s only trying to get through to retirement. However, as the two investigate the heroin ring and uncover the conspiracy led by Gen. McAllister and Mr. Joshua, they grow closer together and form a tentative friendship that becomes a true familial bond, forged together in the fires of criminal conspiracy and exploding houses.
Very slowly, Riggs makes a friend. In Murtaugh, he finds more than just a guy to ride beside, but a true partner, and the two come to trust one another with their very lives. Riggs changes during the movie, echoing George Bailey’s arc in It’s A Wonderful Life. Rather than simply overcoming a failed bank and its Shadow Company mercenaries, the pair are on a journey of redemption. Martin Riggs finds a reason to keep going rather than a reason to give up.
If You Think I’m Gonna Eat the World’s Lousiest Christmas Turkey By Myself, You’re Crazy
Without Murtaugh and his family accepting Riggs, he would have killed himself (or been killed during the line of duty). Even if Lethal Weapon isn’t am out-and-out Christmas movie, it’s very much a movie about battling through depression at one of the hardest times of the year for those who are hurting. Lethal Weapon acknowledges that there’s a reason the Elvis song is called “Blue Christmas,” as beneath all the pretty paper, Christmas is one of the saddest, loneliest times of the year.
What’s more in the holiday spirit than battling through sadness? John McClane receiving a machine gun is a pretty crucial ‘gift’ in Die Hard, but it’s nothing compared to Martin Riggs finding a true friend and gaining a family who loves him enough to bring him in out of the cold and feed him Trish Murtaugh’s terrible cooking.