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Forget Die Hard; this 1980s action film is the most underrated Christmas movie ever

Warning: This article discusses suicide.

The campaign to canonize Die Hard as a Christmas movie has been in full swing for year now, with adherents advocating for the movie’s holiday bona fides with almost religious zealotry. But while some have made compelling arguments – even the movie’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, called it the “greatest Christmas story ever told” – it’s not hard to see why others, including star Bruce Willis, consider it a shaky claim.

Yes, it’s set during Christmastime. And yes, there’s the glorious sequence in which Beethoven’s Ode to Joy plays as the villains help themselves to $640 million in early holiday loot. (The director, John McTiernan wanted to use Ode to Joy because he had liked it in that heartwarming holiday classic A Clockwork Orange.) But while Christmastime is an effective setting, there’s just not a ton of evidence that the movie is Christmas-themed. Die Hard 2 (which I’ve always preferred to the original anyway) is set during the holidays in Washington, D.C., and boasts something far more Christmassy than the LA-set original: snow.

Which isn’t to say that Christmas movies can’t be set in LA. There’s an argument that Lethal Weapon, released the summer before Die Hard (Joel Silver produced both movies), more intentionally embodies classic holiday themes. Here are some reasons why it belongs in the canon of Christmas classics as much — or more than — Die Hard.

Just a lonely Christmas

A man aims his gun in Lethal Weapon.
Warner Bros.

Lethal Weapon signals its thematic intentions from the start. As Bobby Helms croons his 1957 classic Jingle Bell Rock over the opening credits, the camera cruises past the LA skyline, then descends towards a Christmas light-festooned apartment tower. Inside a penthouse window (with its thrown-open sash), what should appear, but a half-naked young woman, Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson), drugged out of her mind.

Also: snow! Not the precipitative kind that falls from the sky, but the powdery narcotic kind that was so popular in ’80s movies (whether or not it was as popular in real life, who knows, but the movies sure made it seem like it was). Our Christmas angel takes a snort, then dives from the balcony. She is ethereal in flight, her white satin robe flowing open like gossamer wings as she floats down through the silent night, past the lovely lights, and smashes into a car below.

Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) tears open the shutters and throws up the sash. Image used with permission by copyright holder

The bit plays as black comedy — director Richard Donner and writer Shane Black using the jaunty tune to poke fun at the way Christmas in La La Land is antithetical to traditional middle-American values. But the scene also introduces the movie’s more serious theme. We later find out that the young woman — like many before and after her — had come to Los Angeles from the Midwest seeking a more glamorous existence, only to experience a lonely death a thousand miles from her parents and hometown. Like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, Lethal Weapon is about what befalls those (no pun intended) who cut themselves off from family and community.

Surviving the silly season

Happiness at the Murtaugh home in lethal Weapon. Warner Bros

Loneliness in the film is primarily embodied in the character of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), the morose LA detective with a shadowy background in Vietnam-era black ops. Happiness is exemplified by Sergeant Murtaugh (Danny Glover), who has it all: the suburban home, the doting wife, the adoring kids. He worries about getting old, but otherwise he’s achieved the American dream (reflecting this, the NAACP gave Lethal Weapon Image Awards for its positive depiction of an African American family).

Riggs, meanwhile, shacks up in a dump of a trailer on a forlorn El Segundo beach and drinks beer for breakfast. Sure, he’s got a dog, but like Ebenezer Scrooge, he is a desperately lonely man. Riggs visits a Christmas tree lot, and even inquires about the trees, but he’s only there to arrest some drug dealers and to prove through his suicidal antics how little he values his own existence.

Lethal Weapon (1/10) Movie CLIP - Crazy Cop (1987) HD

It turns out that Riggs is broken up over the death of his wife. Drinking heavily in front of a Bugs Bunny Christmas special (Warner Bros cross-promotion at its finest), staring down the black barrel of his famous 9mm Beretta, he almost takes himself out. Later, when he’s called to talk down a potential building jumper, he is able to empathize with the man about how desperate the “silly season” makes people. But Riggs is just doing his job, telling the guy what he wants to hear. At this point in the movie, he isn’t sure if he wants to live. He even tells Murtaugh that he has to think of a reason not to kill himself every day when he wakes up.

Lethal Weapon (4/10) Movie CLIP - Do You Really Wanna Jump? (1987) HD

Like the floating angel from the opening scene, Riggs also takes flight as he saves the jumper. But unlike Amanda Hunsaker, he’ll get a second chance to embrace renewal. Riggs’ jump echoes not only the movie’s opening, but also the bridge scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life. In that Christmas classic, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), believing he’s worth more dead than alive, goes to a bridge to kill himself. He ends up saving his guardian angel instead, who then shows him why the world would be worse without him.

Happy Xmas (War is over)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) Public domain

One of the consequences of George’s existence being erased is that he isn’t around to save his younger brother from drowning. His brother, in turn, never saves a troop transport during WWII, or comes home a Navy hero. The movie was released in 1946, a year after the war ended, when America was figuring out how to reintegrate traumatized soldiers into a rapidly changing society. That theme of war and homecoming is crucial to It’s a Wonderful Life. 

It’s a crucial theme in Lethal Weapon as well, though neither film gets discussed much in these terms. So many ’80s movies referenced the Vietnam War that this aspect went more or less unnoticed when Lethal Weapon came out. But looking at the movie almost 40 years later, it’s striking how big a role Vietnam plays. Both Riggs and Murtaugh are veterans, and the drug dealers they are up against are elite ex-special forces vets who have brought the war home with them — they even use “mercury switches” to blow up a house in a suburban neighborhood.

Murtaugh was also Vietnam buddies with Amanda Hunsaker’s father, Michael (Tom Atkins), who implores Murtaugh to take down his daughter’s killers as repayment for saving his life in the war. They regard a picture of their younger selves in their uniforms, which looks like a shot straight out of The Best Years of Our Lives (also from 1946) about returning soldiers struggling to find their place and purpose in a changed society.

Vietnam war buddies Roger Murtaugh and Michael Hunsaker Warner Bros

Like The Best Years of Our Lives, Lethal Weapon is about the cost of war, and how hard it is for soldiers to come home. Without underlining it too heavily (and getting in the way of the thrilling action), the movie illustrates lives shattered by the Vietnam War. The villains, especially, have forsaken the path of happiness that results from peace on Earth and good will toward men. Riggs, for his part, is still on that path.

I’ll be nome for Christmas

Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Joshua (Gary Busey) put on a Christmas pageant to die for in lethal Weapon. Warner Bros

The grinch in our yuletide tale is the villain, Mr. Joshua (a sneering Gary Busey), who takes deep and abiding pleasure in ruining people’s good times. The movie’s climax takes place at the Murtaugh residence at night, and it’s a veritable Christmas extravaganza, with lights and trees and not one, but two televisions playing A Christmas Carol.

When Scrooge awakens and asks what day it is, Joshua screams “It’s the day of Christmas!” in a curmudgeonly rage and mows down the TV with his assault rifle. Fortunately, our heroes have arrived moments before to evacuate all the Whos from Whoville and set a trap for Mr. Grinch, leaving a note on the tree informing him they got the jump on him.

Warner Bros

What follows is a showdown in Murtaugh’s front yard in which Riggs, the renewed Scrooge, reborn from his journey to the spirit world (he almost dies half a dozen times over the preceding two days), marshals his abundant resources (the LAPD) to cast out the Grinch once and for all.

From there, it’s just the denouement. Riggs, having chosen life and made peace with his wife’s death, crosses the threshold of community and family, entering the Murtaugh home to the velvety tones of Elvis crooning I’ll be Home for Christmas. Bing Crosby originally recorded the song in 1943 for homesick U.S. troops who longed to celebrate the yuletide with their families.

It signifies that Riggs has finally left the war behind. He’s been home physically, but now he is home emotionally as well. The only thing missing is the camera tilting up to a twinkling Christmas Star. Though in fairness, the star may be there, just hidden behind the LA smog (ho, ho, ho).

You can rent Lethal Weapon and other movies in this article from multiple streaming platforms.

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