1988’s “Die Hard” is many things. It is arguably the definitive action film. It introduced the world to the incomparable talents of Alan Rickman and Bruce Willis. It solidified the career of director John McTiernan and made him the most important action filmmaker of the ’80s. It’s one of the most rewatchable and quotable films of the ’80s. But of all the things one can say about “Die Hard,” it is simply not a Christmas movie.
It’s also not, not a Christmas movie. It’s something else entirely. It’s an anti-Christmas movie. This is why every year a debate erupts on the internet over whether it is truly a Christmas film.
There are at least two kinds of Christmas movies. The first are movies that are actually about Christmas, films like “A Christmas Story” from 1983. As the title suggests, it’s a story about Christmas, told from the perspective of a midwestern elementary-aged boy. The second type of Christmas movies are films that are set during Christmas, but really the plot is seasonally interchangeable. For instance, “Home Alone” is set during Christmas, but it could have been set during Thanksgiving and relatively little would change. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” likewise is set during Thanksgiving but could have taken place at Christmas.
The Christmas Movie Genre
I think it’s fair to say that the first category is the real Christmas films. Films that start with Christmas as an essential element and are clearly about Christmas are obviously Christmas movies. The problem is that Christmas is so much more evocative than any other holiday that by setting your film at Christmas, you have done something to it. There’s a reason we don’t really have a genre called summer movies or Easter movies. Setting a film at Christmas is a storytelling choice.
For instance, Shane Black, the genius writer and director behind amazing films like “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” “Lethal Weapon,” and “Iron Man 3” sets virtually all his films at Christmas in L.A. He does this in part because it gives a film a particular vibe, a complicated noirish one. Anyone who has lived in L.A. and experienced an L.A. Christmas understands why this is, and it’s difficult to convey to the uninitiated. There is something about L.A. that is at odds with Christmas itself.
“Die Hard” almost could be a Shane Black film, since it is set in L.A. at Christmastime. “Lethal Weapon” beat it to cinemas by a year. But there are a surprising number of action films set at Christmas in L.A. “Cobra” from 1986 was Stallone’s attempt at an L.A. cop movie. Inexplicably, it is set at Christmas. William Friedkin’s nihilistic “To Live and Die in L.A.” from 1985 is likewise set at Christmas.
It was clearly a trend in the ’80s to set your L.A. action film at Christmastime. I think the reason for this is twofold. Film is a visual medium, and Christmas is the most visually oriented Western holiday. Setting a film at Christmas gives it some visual distinction. But it also gives it some thematic heft. Think about how many films don’t really have a seasonal setting. Dates and times of year are relatively insignificant in a comedy like “Dumb and Dumber.” Does it really matter what time of year “Casablanca” takes place?
Sometimes Christmas can take over a film. “Home Alone” feels like a Christmas movie because setting it at Christmas raises the stakes for Kevin and his isolation from his family. Missing out on the yearly Thanksgiving trip doesn’t have the same tragic quality as being forgotten at Christmas. Christmas is about salvation, a cosmic reorientation away from the old pagan world into the new Christian one. I doubt that if the film had been set at Thanksgiving one of the most memorable scenes would have happened, the church conversation with the old man. Christmas conquers “Home Alone” in a way that no other holiday can take over a movie.
I’ve seen ironic attempts to show how “Die Hard” has Christian themes, and that is all they are: ironic. The apotheosis of this is the Nakatomi Tower advent calendars that commemorate each day by having Hans Gruber fall one more story. This is a very funny joke, but that is all it is. The comedic and ironic nature of “Die Hard” is part of what makes it an action masterpiece.
But Christmas is not inherently funny or ironic. It’s the most serious kind of holiday because it’s about the meaning of life and death. Great Christmas comedies like “A Christmas Story” and “Christmas Vacation” are funny because of their silly human elements. Christmas celebrations can bring out the weirdest things in us because humans are ridiculous, especially in familial settings.
American Christmas: Sadness, Isolation, and Materialism
“Die Hard’s” connection to Christmas is to parody the very idea of heavenly justice. At the beginning of the film, John McClane is not a family man. He has failed his family. His children and wife have moved to L.A. He’s deeply unhappy. There is nothing for him to celebrate this Christmas; his life is in shambles. Yes, the film ends with him being reunited with his wife, but as the franchise bears out, he’s still a bad father and husband, so the reunion is fleeting. Defeating some extraordinary thieves hasn’t changed him in any remotely moral way. He’s not improved as a person, he’s just killed some bad guys and saved some lives.
But maybe more important is the gleeful abandon that the villains exhibit throughout the film. If you really want to understand what this film has to say about Christmas, you need to look no further than the scene where they finally open the vault. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” plays, reaching a crescendo when the vault opens and the bad guy’s tech expert smiles and exuberantly says: “Merry Christmas.”
The villains are celebrating Christmas — but not the Christmas of Christ and George Bailey. They are celebrating what American decadence has done to Christmas. This film is taking the most cynical (and sadly often truthful) view of what Christmas has come to mean in America. Christmas means divorced loser dads having to travel cross country. Christmas means sadness, isolation, and materialism for so many Americans.
What it’s saying about what Christmas has become is not untrue, but it is un-Christmas. It is an anti-Christmas movie. In some ways, this is as close America may ever come to the scathing moral indictment of Christmas envisioned by Dickens almost two centuries ago. The difference is that A Christmas Carol ends with repentance and hope. “Die Hard” ends with a gunshot.
Every year at his theater in L.A., Quentin Tarantino shows “Die Hard” to celebrate Christmas. And if you’ve seen any of Tarantino’s films, that makes perfect sense. His vision of the world melds with this film’s take on Christmas perfectly. People love to have an excuse to watch this film because it’s incredibly entertaining, so they use Christmas as their reason. It’s a Tarantino-esque Christmas tradition. And that is why the debate goes on, because this film simply does not fit into what Christmas is actually about.
The continued popularity of “Die Hard,” and the perennial debate over whether it’s a Christmas movie, shows that Christmas has not conquered L.A. or “Die Hard.” Rather, in some sense, “Die Hard” has conquered Christmas. That makes it, by definition, an anti-Christmas movie. And this is why the debate will go on: because it’s a film that is fundamentally in conflict with the holiday it’s used to celebrate.