Die Hard versus Lethal Weapon: A Comparative Christmas Essay

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.

What Scares Me? Volume One: Animals

In the (not quite) immortal words of the Kurgen, “Happy Halloween, Ladies!” (and gentlemen.)

There are quite a few horror movies that I am almost proud to say I don’t find scary. The Exorcist? I adore it, but it doesn’t perturb in any way. The Shining? It leaves me colder than Jack Torrance out there in the snow. I can, however, be spooked. There are some oddly specific filmic features that make me put my hands over my face and squirm about in childish discomfort and become uncomfortably lodged in my mind like a nasty mental splinter. Let’s talk about animals.

I know what you’re thinking. Animal horror? It’s gotta be those big creature-feature monster movies like Anaconda (1997) and Arachnophobia (1990). Nah-ah. For me it’s much more subtle. The sort of film that might not make you jump out of your seat in shock, but manages to infiltrate your perspective on the natural world around you. Hitchcock knew what he was doing with The Birds (1963) by taking a less obvious source of animal horror and pushing it to its very limit. One can’t help but be reminded of The Birds whenever you walk near a densely populated clump of pigeons in the street. Then there’s The Fly (both the 1958 and the 1986 version) which will forever make you slightly wary that the bug batting itself against your net curtains may not be just a bug… Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) took advantage of many people’s natural aversion to rats and did Orwell’s vision proud. Pet Sematary (1989) recreated that bedraggled and distinctive look of a dead-cat-cat-walking – every neighbourhood has one.

Pigs can also be unnerving; I think it’s to do with their desperate insatiable hunger. I once worked as a grotto Elf on Santa’s Farm and when I had to retrieve something from the pig pen they eagerly pulled at my trouser legs like they were after my flesh. It’s a possibility they didn’t like me eating a pork pie in front of the earlier at lunch but that’s neither here nor there, I’m the victim here. I think part of this fear might have come from the overreaction of the farmhands when Dorothy falls into the peg pen in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Pigs are also used as a symbol of disgusting greed in Spirited Away (2001) when Chihiro’s parents are transformed; their pink piggy pork bulging underneath their human clothes as they lap food from bowls, before they go ‘total pig’ and Chihiro is tasked with telling her parents apart from the real thing.

The most unpleasant film ever to stalk this Earth – bar none – is Watership Down (1978). I came to this film very young, it was leant to me by the irresponsible parent of a primary school friend (the same woman who leant me David the Gnome with its horrifying finale). With a very solid childhood foundation in late eighties and early nineties Disney, I was not best pleased to see so many bloodied bunnies, or so many salivating evil rabbits. The animation has a sketchy roughness to it which makes every scene a waking nightmare. Possibly worst of all is Art Garfunkel’s haunting delivery of ‘Bright Eyes’ the sound of someone trying to lure you over to the other side.

And then there’s Pinocchio (1940). The horrified bray of Pinocchio’s new found friend Lampwick as he transforms into a donkey after being a naughty boy is infamous. Watching as Lampwick’s hands decay into rigid little hooves and his crestfallen expression as he howls for his ‘mama’ has been forever imprinted into the minds of all good Disney fans.

I conclude my ‘scary animals’ section by ever so briefly mentioning live action abomination Tusk (2014) in which a young and very annoying podcaster is abducted by a crazed man who once had a powerful friendship with a walrus called Mr Tusk and wishes to replicate that relationship using his captive and some rudimentary surgical skills (goo goo g’joob). It is thoroughly grotesque, offers a cluster of nasty visuals and has Johnny Depp in a cameo that will put even the most hormonal of frustrated school-gate mums off him for life. To my mind, a horror film should be horrifying, but it shouldn’t make you feel dirty on the inside. I’m talking worse than Martyrs here (2008).

What have I missed out? Let me know! And remember that no animal is safe!

Best Christmas Film Ever: Elf (2003)

I didn’t grow up watching Elf. I had to make to do the eternally grainy and unsettling Santa Claus: The Movie and animations based on Raymond Briggs classics. By the time Elf was released, I was sixteen, but I think that was as good an age as any. After all, as my first ever real-life job, I worked in a popular garden centre as an elf for two Christmases and the film gave me an inner sense of hope; I kept hoping Will Ferrell would rescue me. He did not.

Written by David Berenbaum and directed by Jon Favreau, Elf is a classic because it endures multiple watches and has a whole lot of heart. It’s genuinely a film for all the family. Ferrell’s innocence is charming to children and adults alike, and isn’t spoiled by too many knowing winks to the adult audience beyond Buddy accidentally buying sexy lingerie for his father. How easy would it have been to have, for example, included an irksome scene where Jovie and Buddy attempt to consummate their relationship? There are many films made now that would leap at this cringe-worthy opportunity. I’m also supremely grateful that Buddy’s Elf-tights are, in the interests of good taste, much thicker are therefore far less creepily hypnotic than David Bowie’s in Labyrinth.

However you chose to slice it, Will Ferrell is a great actor (more on Stranger than Fiction and, possibly, Winter Passing in future posts) and he plays Buddy the Elf with a level of naiveté that it’s difficult to pull off as endearing and not simply annoying (it’s the same achievement Amy Adams managed in Enchanted about four years later and it’s not easily done). Buddy’s loveable keenness is used to counterpoint the cynicism and sarcasm of just about every other character in the film. Buddy’s father, Walter, played by James Caan, certainly has a Grinch-like exterior which needs to be melted away, but most of the characters are jaded in some way. It is a delight to watch Buddy break through Jovie’s defences and witness them falling in love.

Zooey Deschanel is a gorgeous and understated actress with a singing voice to die for and the scene where Buddy follows her voice into the women’s showers and starts to duet with her is very sweet; particularly as it’s then followed by a great slapstick moment where Buddy jams his hands over his face and runs directly into a wall of lockers.

Will Ferrell’s commentary track makes it clear how much of an ensemble piece Elf was. He talks about every actor who features with appreciation and fondness. Mary Steenburgen plays the part of Emily (Walter’s wife) with the right balance of concern and bemusement, greeting the news that her husband has another son with another woman with nothing but excitement. Emily even stays positive when this new son seems to be certifiably and possibly dangerously insane. John Favreau allows himself a special cameo performance as the paediatrician who performs a paternity test for Walter and proves that he is, in fact, Buddy’s father.

Other notable performances are from Peter Dinklage (now known best as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones) as a supposedly gifted children’s writer; the less known half of Tenacious D, Kyle Gass and even Will Ferrell’s brother as the publishing house’s security staff. Die-hard Disney fans will also enjoy seeing Bob Newhart as Buddy’s Papa Elf (that’s the voice of Bernard from The Rescuers to you!) Even child actor Daniel Tay as Buddy’s brand new half brother isn’t annoying; you feel his quiet frustration at his stunted relationship with his dad and it’s interesting seeing the character of Michael take on a big-brother role with the not-particularly-street-wise-or-savvy Buddy.

As well as subtle computerised special effects (they’re good if you don’t notice them), there are wonderfully old fashioned touches to this film, such as the stop-motion animated arctic critters who bid Buddy goodbye when he leaves the North Pole. These are adorably cute and I especially enjoy the moment where the little walrus can longer keep his emotions in check and starts to openly sob as Buddy climbs aboard the block of ice which will carry him away.

It’s also a supremely quotable movie (like a Christmas Anchorman, accept more endearing). Buddy’s angry whisper of “You sit on a throne of lies” to a grotto Santa is my particularly favourite, although I know that, “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favourite colour?” is also a strongly favoured line.

With a subplot focusing on the evils of financial greed of a children’s book publishing house, Elf is also a film with a message. The decorations which Buddy works on tirelessly all night to spruce up the over-commercialised grotto where Jovie works are a nod to how the hand-crafted and homemade give festivities a more personal touch. The film also reminds family patriarchs (or matriarchs, in the spirit of balance) that their stressful jobs are not the be-all-and-end-all of their lives. Walter becomes a Scrooge figure, obsessed with work for monetary gain and stops eating dinner with his family. The scene in Central Park where the crowd is singing “Santa Claus is Coming to town” really brings home the take-home message that making just a small effort to take part in a group activity and have a little faith in the Christmas spirit can make a world of difference. The shot where Walter joins in the group sing-song and raises his arms and his voice to the sky as Santa’s sleigh soars overhead is totally awesome. Elf is excellent. It even keeps the kids quiet on the last day of term.