There’s always a lot of talk around Christmas about how Die Hard (1988, directed by John McTiernan) is the ultimate ‘alternative’ seasonal film. Although slightly less festive, Lethal Weapon (1987, Richard Donner) should also get a look in. People are only too ready to embrace an action film during the festive season, because they’re sick of all the red-suited schmaltz which so densely populates most other Christmas offerings – but what is often missed is just how good these films are – they’re also pretty similar.
There is a constant Christmassy undercurrent running through Die Hard. The main action centres on a Christmas party gate-crashed by terrorists. Additionally; Officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) ultimately triumphs because of his crafty use of some Christmas wrapping tape. Lethal Weapon is more sparing with its yuletide references, though it opens with a perky rendition of Jingle Bell Rock offset by a heavily drug addled young women jumping bemusedly out of a window. It also features a carton of egg nog being shot, the occasional decorative touch in a shop window and Scrooge (1951) playing on the TV.
The first scene of Die Hard takes place on a plane. McClane discusses the draining nature of air travel with a businessman in the seat next to him. The businessman tells him that the only way to survive is, when he gets to his destination, he has to take off his shoes and socks and make “fists with your toes” on the rug. McClane listens with a smile and, when he first gets the opportunity, we see him appreciate this advice. This natty little plot device also means that our hero with a tough exterior is suddenly extremely prone. What endears McClane to the audience is this vulnerability; he’s tough, but also very human. When he reaches up to gather his carry-ons off the plane, McClane exposes his gun and reassures a passenger with cheeky smile, “It’s okay, I’m a cop.” McClane is presented as a wise-cracking, hardened cop, but a lot of his cracks are self-deprecating. As McClane crawls through a tight duct, he is aware of his own absurdity as he comments, “now I know what a TV dinner feels like.” In contrast, Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs is tragi-comic, he has absolutely no self-love – in fact he has a death wish. He is first shown living on a barren waste of a trailer park, smoking a cigarette, drinking and eating junk and talking to his dead wife – butt naked – who can get more vulnerable than that? Only after this introduction do we see him put a police siren on his dashboard and, perhaps, start to worry.
The main characters in Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are flawed; we feel comfortable liking them because they are just like us. McClane’s marriage is on the rocks. Riggs believes that killing, “Is the only thing I was ever good at.”
Die Hard’s Sargent Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) has a weakness for twinkies and also might have accidentally shot a kid whereas Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) struggle in Lethal Weapon isn’t having shot a kid – it’s hitting fifty.
Throughout Die Hard, McClane is constantly berating himself for trying to do the best he can in a deeply nasty situation, “Why the f*ck didn’t you stop him, John? Cause then you’d be dead too, a**hole.” It helps that McClane can score points with comments like this, because at times in the heat of battle he can say viciously cruel things (“You should have heard your brother squeal when I broke his f*cking neck” being a perfect case in point). Riggs is also capable of reckless behaviour and amazing violence – but it normally seems more justified because it feels more in character.
The costuming also tells a story. McClane starts out in his trademark white vest top, which becomes progressively more dirty and ragged as the film goes on; until he’s sweaty and topless. As McClane’s white shirt gets darker, paradoxically so he is redeemed. In Lethal Weapon, it is Murtaugh who gets the mantle of the dirty vest.
McClane’s lowest point comes when he calls Powell and asks him to tell his wife “sorry”, choked by emotion and regret as he bandages his feet. By the end of the film, McClane is utterly wrecked; he is just as emotionally exhausted as Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). When McClane is reunited with his wife, he is so ruined that Holly can’t help but utter “Jesus” as he comes hobbling towards her. Not unlike Scrooge, or George Bailey for that matter, McClane has to go through hell to realise he needs to appreciate what he has; his wife and children. McClane clearly does not relish his time in the Nakatomi building (especially when he is balanced on top of it), but he is earning back his self-respect and, subsequently, the love of his wife.
Riggs, however, doesn’t have the love of his life to pull him through, he is so lonely that he pays a prostitute to come back to his trailer and watch The Three Stooges with him. Earlier in the film, in desperation, tears pooling under his eyes, he almost takes his own life. Murtaugh and his family are Riggs’ ultimate saviours. The scene where Riggs meets Powell’s wife, Trish (Darlene Love), is similar to the moment in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (also 1987) where the ‘buddy movie’ is concluded by one buddy welcoming another into the bosom of his family.
Both films use a similar device to extract that last little bit of excitement from the adventure film genre. In Die Hard, Sargent Powell has his chance to redeem himself and get back his courage to use a firearm when he stops a crazed terrorist from finishing off McClane. In Lethal Weapon, there is a final shoot out with Joshua (Gary Busey) when he takes the gun from a cop’s holster and tries to take out our heroes. Die Hard lets Powell have his moment of heroism; Lethal Weapon keeps the focus on crack-shot Riggs, though Murtaugh has also played a crucial role in rescuing his abducted daughter.
Die Hard is about love, redemption and undergoing a rite of passage in order to reach that final, deserved Christmas celebration. Plus it repeats well, Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve. Lethal Weapon is very similar. Riggs undergoes great suffering to finally be welcomed into the Murtaugh family festivities to the sounds of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” There is, however, more of a sense of an incomplete journey. Riggs is not yet reconciled to living with himself and, unfortunately, his happy ending is bittersweet.