On this week’s Naughty or Nice, we’re taking a more aggressive approach to the holidays. While the majority of Christmas movies tend to be comedies or dramas (or dramedies), one of the more delightful deviations is the Christmas action film. If there is anything we want our true loves to bring us more than turtledoves and French hens, it’s bullets a-spraying and golden ringing in our ears after a massive explosion. Even within this substantially precise sub-genre, there are still more than enough entries to delineate between those that are dynamite and those that woefully miss their targets.
Nice: Die Hard
Dir: John McTiernan
Plot: New York police officer John McClane comes out to L.A. to visit his estranged wife Holly during her company’s Christmas party. Unfortunately, an international gang of armed thieves has also decided to attend. Now, isolated in a skyscraper, McClane must not only singlehandedly take on the villains, but also literally walk across broken glass to save his marriage.
Die Hard is not just the standard for Christmas actioners, it would serve as the archetype for many action films that followed. The claustrophobic, violent adventure story with a lone, put-upon protagonist presented an interesting, self-contained approach to mayhem that redefined both the genre hero and action set piece conceptualization. We may quote it nonstop and cheer at the baser thrills (seeing the body hit the cop car, Willis’ goading cowboy signoff, etc), but Die Hard is far more vital to the climate of cinema than most give it credit for.
What’s great about Die Hard is the specific means by which it utilizes Christmas as an ironic accent to the murder and destruction. While it’s no secret that the movie takes place during the holiday season, it doesn’t overwhelm the film’s narrative. Change the reason for the Nakatomi party that coincides with McClane’s visit, and the movie could pretty much take place at any point during the year. However, Michael Kamen’s ever-present score, laden with festive jingle bells, juxtapose the brutal, nightmarish content of the movie with the joy of the holiday; excerpts of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” throughout furthers this juxtaposition.
Without a doubt, Die Hard is what made Bruce Willis a movie star. It wasn’t his first film, and in fact he was already a popular TV personality thanks to Moonlighting, but Die Hard as much changed the public perception of Willis as it did redefine the blockbuster action movie. Merely by stepping out of his comfort zone, Willis stumbled upon the mode that would characterize his career from that point forward.
Naughty: Reindeer Games
Dir: John Frankenheimer
Plot: A paroled thief makes the mistake of getting involved with a woman with whom his recently murdered cellmate was corresponding. This encounter quickly finds him entangled with a group of criminals intent on robbing a casino. He is forced to take part to save his own skin.
So right off the bat, we have several fundamental similarities that make a compelling case for Reindeer Games’ classification as a Die Hard rip-off. It is a Christmas action film that centers on a robbery, features a put-upon hero, and ends with a pile of dead crooks. From there, the differences are so stark as to choke out any favorable comparisons. Indeed, their few visible shared traits only serve to shine harsher light upon Reindeer Games’ innumerable shortcomings. In many ways, we can think of Reindeer Games as the lesser sibling of Die Hard
For example, let us take a look at the films’ respective protagonists. Yes, both are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the events that land them at that wrong place express the divergent endearing qualities of those heroes. Where one is a guy just trying to rekindle his relationship with his wife, the other is a two-bit crook who pretends to be someone else in order to bed a beautiful woman. McClane is a cop whose natural inclination is toward saving the day; Affleck’s character is vile and dishonest at his core. Also, if you thought the plot of Die Hard relied a bit heavily on convenient circumstance, the plot of Reindeer Games is so dependent upon the occurring of an exact series of variables as to be something more akin to deus ex schlockina.
Oddly, there is something fascinating about examining the directors and actors involved in these two films; they actually somewhat align when shifted across the timelines of their catalogs. Bruce Willis was altering his paradigm by moving into action films early, and currently Ben Affleck has been charting his own major shift. With directorial efforts Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now Argo, Affleck has firmly established himself behind the camera.
And then we have John McTiernan and John Frankenheimer in the respective director’s chairs here. Both of these filmmakers’ names carry a great deal of weight, and these two films represent benchmarks at opposing ends of two formidable careers. Die Hard was McTiernan’s third film, and released just a year after Predator. It was clear he was coming into his own in a big way. Meanwhile, Frankenheimer was nearing the end of his career, and sadly his life, when he made Reindeer Games. It’s one of those unfortunate examples of a great filmmaker losing his touch, while simultaneously featuring an actor who in constant struggle to be respected as a leading man. And yet now, Affleck is a talented director, Willis is about to star in the fifth Die Hard film, and legal troubles have prevented McTiernan from making a movie since 2003. The pendulum continues to swing.
[Photo Credit: Dimension Films; 20th Century Fox]