Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)
Most Christmas films are awful. Most films in general are awful, so it’s not surprising. But are the good ones, the ones actually worth your time, even Christmas films at all? Where do we draw the line between Christmas as a setting and Christmas as a genre? In consequence, I propose a new subgenre: the almost-a-Christmas film. Obvious examples for our fantasy Blockbuster Video section would be: Diner, Trading Places, Gremlins, Batman Returns, every film written by Shane Black, and, of course, John McTiernan’s Die Hard.
These films have Christmas as a setting, but it’s of little or no importance to the story. Die Hard doesn’t need to be set at Christmas; it’s only necessary that a party is taking place at Nakatomi Plaza for the “Eurotrash” terrorists to gatecrash. However, and this is the key to an almost-a-Christmas film, Die Hard would lose so much without having the festive season in the background. When I hear “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” I think of the film. That’s Die Hard’s Christmas song. And so is “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. The discovery of a recently dispatched bad guy with a Santa hat on his head and “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho” written on his jumper is a standout moment, in a film that’s a bulging stocking of standout moments. I could go on about Die Hard at length but I’m somewhat scared of where it might end… When it comes to judging the film on its own terms, at this point all I can say is: I first saw Die Hard when I was 10 years old, I still wear white vests in honour of John McClane, and I can’t really talk about it in any kind of rational, objective way.
Unfortunately, most films which insist on keeping Christmas relentlessly in the foreground are crimes against the medium. (First in the dock: Love Actually.) But there is one that goes against the grain, both as a Christmas film, and as a member of that oft-despised genre, the romantic comedy. The work of art in question is The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch) starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. You probably don’t know it, but trust me – it’s off the hook. Absolutely everything Sullavan and Stewart say and do in The Shop Around the Corner gives me the horn. It’s not a question of “They don’t make ’em like that anymore”; nothing out of Hollywood before or since comes close to matching it.
At this time of year I’m also fond of re-viewing films that may not even mention Christmas but feature a heavy dose of snow, such as Where Eagles Dare or Three Colours: White, or even a tiny bit of snow, like Citizen Kane or Broadway Danny Rose. Also, we all have films we instinctively think of as being Christmassy, despite having no actual connection, because of a televisual association implanted at a young age. Of course, for many of us, the shining example of this would be The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges). It was shown on Boxing Day two years running in the late 80s and Steve McQueen looking impossibly cool on a motorbike will remind me of this time of year for the rest of my life.