For the last two weeks we’ve discussed hardcore holiday classics like A Christmas Story and A Christmas Carol. Now it’s time to talk about genre films that inadvertently became mandatory Christmas viewing since they were set during the yuletide season. None of these films were released at the holidays – most were summer blockbusters released at a time when I had nothing better to do than to watch movies, making them “Steve classics.”
Gremlins, released in 1984, features the most tangible Christmas connection. Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys the titular character as a holiday gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan), and all hell breaks loose. The film is a deft blend of comedy and horror and for me, the pinnacle of Joe Dante’s career. He does a fantastic job using the holiday setting as a backdrop for the carnage as the devilish creatures demolish Smalltown U.S.A. No sacred Christmas cow is safe!
Lethal Weapon (1987) might’ve been my all-time favorite action film were it not for another we’ll get to in a moment. It may not be the first cop-buddy film but it certainly defined the genre. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover play a mismatched pair of cops thrown together to solve a murder whose roots go as far back as the Vietnam War. Gibson’s Martin Riggs is a suicidal mess who recently lost his wife and Glover’s Roger Murtagh is a family man nearing the end of his career (or so he thinks). Their chemistry makes the film (and all the explosions and gun battles don’t hurt either) and it spawned three sequels and numerous imitators.
Released in 1992, Batman Returns followed up the most popular superhero film of its generation, reteaming Michael Keaton as the tortured hero with director Tim Burton, now given free reign to imprint even more of his personal style. Burton really let his freak flag fly, especially with his depiction of the Penguin, as played by Danny DeVito. Burton seems to enjoy wintry settings, as further evidenced by Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
L.A. Confidential is the only film on this list released in the 90s. This intricate tale of police corruption in 1950s Hollywood brought Aussies Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to our attention, and showcased a fine performance from Kevin Spacey as well as an Academy Award winning turn from Kim Basinger. Reminiscent of Chinatown in many respects, the film is a wonderful portrayal of the seedy underbelly of the glitzy, gauzy Hollywood of yesteryear.
My favorite “non-holiday” holiday film is the original Die Hard, released in 1988. The pre-eminent action film of a generation, Die Hard was a game changer in a number of ways. It featured an “everyman” hero rather than a steroid freak superman. New York cop John McLane (Bruce Willis) used his wits to survive. He bled. He took a hell of a beating and possessed a self-deprecating sense of humor that lightened the proceedings.
Alan Rickman was a suave villain and master thief, who posed as an international terrorist, again turning the conventions of the genre on its ear. This was not some petty despot from a tropical banana republic. The film has become almost a genre unto itself with myriad imitators claiming they were “Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard on a train, Die Hard in a shopping mall,” etc.