“Christmas is carnage,” declares Ferdinand the duck in Babe. The holiday season certainly feels that way this year. So I am regifting an old Christmas post from this blog’s first year. Reading it provides the perfect opportunity to practice your fake smile and pretend you like something you neither need nor want.
One of my most vivid holiday memories doesn’t involve mistletoe, a bow-collared puppy or even one of those sweet X-Wing fighters with the laser sound effects and the push-button R2-D2. Rather, it was the Christmas Eve my father and I disenfranchised pretty much the entire family.
It was one of those rare holidays when entire sets of aunts, uncles and cousins made the cross-country journey to my grandparents’ house—a true family gathering. Dad and I were tasked with a pilgrimage to the video store (those were a thing) for some festive holiday viewing.
In our defense, we made it clear that it would be a cold day in Hawaii before we returned with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th St. That said, we also didn’t come back with the thematic and broadly appealing A Christmas Story or even National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Our selection on that holy night: Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The reasoning was simple and two-fold. First, my father theorized that if he was to stay up into the wee hours putting together toys whose assemblage merited an engineering doctorate, he needed something in the background with lots of ’splosions. Second, it was the only movie available we could agree on (my father ranks Top Gun as the greatest movie of all time; I’m more of a Casablanca fan).
By the time Sarah Connor is liberated from the mental institution, the family had scattered like roaches under a kitchen light, making snide comments about the film’s appropriateness as they departed. Perhaps we should have rented something more holiday-centric. Like Lethal Weapon.
For these seeking something a little more explosive than the standard redemptive (yawn) and heart-warming (gag) holiday fare, following are 10 fine Christmas-set crime capers (in descending alphabetical order). For as Crow T. Robot asks rhetorically in the wonderful Mystery Science Theater 3000 take on the not-so-classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, “Like a good action sequence don’t belong at Christmas?”
10. The Thin Man (1934)
Soon before his daughter’s holiday season wedding, a renowned scientist vanishes. One murder is committed after his disappearance, and maybe more. Suspects emerge so quickly one can barely count them (but don’t worry; there’s a seating chart later … really).
Meanwhile, the famed, recently retired and beloved (even by criminals he’s put away) private detective Nick Charles (the incomparable William Powell) demonstrates to the bartenders of a ritzy New York hotel how to make a proper martini. “The important thing is the rhythm,” he explains. “Now, a Manhattan you shake to foxtrot. A Bronx to two-step time. But a dry martini, you always shake to waltz time.”
Eventually, Nick and his sharp-tongued socialite wife, Nora (an adorably tart Myrna Loy), become entangled in the investigation. But the point of this Depression-era movie is really the escapist joy of watching Nick and Nora affectionately bicker and booze their way through Dashiell Hammett’s breezy, if convoluted, plot, which builds to a fantastic scene in which Nick invites all of the suspects to dinner, planning to unveil the murderer, but not really knowing who it is.
9. The Ref (1994)
When burglar Gus (Denis Leary) is abandoned by his partner during a Christmas Eve robbery, he takes married couple Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage to secure his escape. Little does Gus know he’s the one about to be trapped amid the most dysfunctional family gathering this side of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration.
“Great,” observes an exasperated Gus as the bickering begins. “I hijacked my fucking parents.”
Directed by the late Ted Demme (the likewise underrated Beautiful Girls) and featuring a razor-sharp script honed to perfection by a cast of pros that also features Glynis Johns as Lloyd’s suffocating mother and Christine Baranski as an overbearing in-law (“The spirit of Christmas,” she chastises her son, “is either you’re good or you’re punished and you burn in hell”), The Ref is a vicarious holiday treat for everyone who bit their tongue through a tension-filled family gathering.
“Do you know what this family needs?” Gus asks at one point. “A mute.”
8. The Proposition (2005)
After a mass murder instigated by his older brother, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is given the titular proposition by the newly installed British lawman (Ray Winstone) of a remote territory in the Australian outback: Find and execute his sibling by Christmas, or his younger, mentally handicapped brother, who was also party to the massacre, will hang.
The Proposition doesn’t get any cheerier as it builds to a Christmas dinner climax that is bloodier than any family get-together I’ve experienced. This Oz-set Western isn’t entirely devoid of humor, however; the great John Hurt provides bitter comic relief as the vulgar, racist bounty hunter who also seeks Burns’ brother: “No finer race of men has ever peeled a potato,” he eggs on the Irish Burns.
For those seeking a Cormac McCarthy-like, Old Testament-style bleak for the holidays, look no further (director John Hillcoat also helmed, to less success, the cinematic version of McCarthy’s vivid, post-apocalyptic, father-son novel The Road).
7. Millions (2004)
Saint Nicklaus himself makes an appearance in Millions, but, as he reminds the film’s young hero, the Father Christmas thing was kind of secondary.
Set in London at the Christmas prior to the Euro conversion, Millions follows the adventures of the recently motherless Damian (Alex Etel, in one of the great cinematic kid performances) and his older brother, Anthony, as they decide what to do with a bag full of money that literally falls out of the sky. Damian views it as a gift from God and wants to give it to the poor; Anthony sees opportunity.
The journey that follows is funny, unexpected and gloriously inventive. Director Danny Boyle made an impression with the lean, mean thriller Shallow Grave; achieved cult status with Trainspotting; made big box office with 28 Days Later; and won an Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire. But Millions may be his best film to date.
Millions takes viewers inside the imagination of its child heroes (including a sort-of Boy’s Own retelling of the train heist from whence the money may have come and a spectacular montage of the boys’ new house being built to their specifications before their own eyes—“Surprisingly spacious,” notes Anthony) as they are pursued by a relentless, black-clad villain who forces them to make on-the-fly decisions beyond their years.
Don’t worry, though. All ends happily, and that’s not giving anything away. After all, as Damian informs us, this is his story. And he has St. Nick on his side.
6. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
After a post-Christmas-party accident triggers changes in Samantha Caine’s parenting style (“Life is pain,” she bluntly informs her comically lispy young daughter, who falls while ice skating) and unleashes the ability to chop vegetables at Cuisinart speeds, the amnesiac school teacher/homemaker hits the road with a low-rent private detective to uncover her past.
Littered with bodies and loaded with gleefully elaborate action setpieces, The Long Kiss Goodnight plays like a distaff version of the Bourne series, only it’s not so self-serious, it takes less than a collective six hours to make its point, and Shane Black—a maestro of concept and clever profanity (see No. 4 below)—bothered to write witty dialogue that isn’t entirely expository.
Anchored by nudge-nudge-wink-wink performances from Geena Davis (whose Caine alter ego Charlie Baltimore is even badder than Kill Bill’s Bride), SAMUEL L. JACKSON (yes, he yells a lot) and a fine supporting cast that includes Brian Cox (who delivers a diatribe about the grooming habits of a lap dog that is alone worth the price of admission), The Long Kiss Goodnight delivers what Larry King describes in a cameo as “one helluva Christmas.”
5. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Liquor and racial tensions don’t mix well—especially when the media is on hand to capture the results. Thus a violent, holiday beatdown of imprisoned Mexicans by Los Angeles Police Department officers gets splashed across front pages (“The press loves to label,” chides the police chief, holding up a headline that blares “Bloody Christmas”) and leads to swift internal changes.
On his way up is Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), young, moralistic and motivated; going down is Bud White (Russell Crowe), partner to one of the cops photographed in the assault and prone to dispensing justice on his own; and stuck somewhere in the middle is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a slick detective who testifies against fellow officers involved in the beating in order to maintain his gig as a consultant on the Dragnet-ish TV show Badge of Honor.
When a bloody killing in an L.A. diner—whose victims include White’s former partner—leads to questions of even deeper departmental corruption the trio tentatively teams up to unveil the truth in this crisp, Academy Award-winning adaptation of James Ellroy’s sprawling novel.
4. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Bumbling thief Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) goes from a botched Christmas season break-in in New York to Los Angeles for a screen test as a private detective to a Hollywood party where he reconnects with a childhood-crush-turned-aspiring-actress (Michelle Monaghan) to taking lessons from an actual private detective—who happens to be gay—named Perry (Val Kilmer) to becoming embroiled in a real-life mystery.
Fear not the knotty plot, for Harry provides a reassuring, if stream-of-conscious, narration: “Don’t worry, I saw Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to end this 17 times.”
Besides, the story is less important than watching two notorious actors at the top of their games exchange rapid-fire dialogue like this …
Perry: “Look up ‘idiot’ in the dictionary. Know what you’ll find?”
Harry: “A picture of me?”
Perry: “No. The definition of the word ‘idiot,’ which you fucking are.”
… that occur amid writer/director/holiday demolition expert Shane Black’s vibrant deconstruction of pretty much all things Hollywood (including the title homage, a phrase Pauline Kael once saw on an Italian movie poster and deemed “perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies”).
3. Go (1999)
“You know what I love most about Christmas?” Claire (a pre-brainwashed Katie Holmes) asks drug dealer Todd Gaines (the always sharp Timothy Olyphant) over a chance-encounter breakfast. “The surprises.”
The surprises that lead to this exchange as Go doubles back on itself are part of what make the film so much fun. Another is the whip-smart dialogue (Olyphant later in that conversation delivers a wonderful monologue regarding the suckitude of Family Circus).
Kind of an ecstasy-fueled Short Cuts, Go’s myriad characters and intertwining tales are almost impossible to describe without ruining the joy of just going with the flow.
2. Die Hard (1988)
“On a technical level, there’s a lot to be said for ‘Die Hard.’ It’s when we get to some of the unnecessary adornments of the script that the movie shoots itself in the foot.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“…an actor is hard-pressed to create a characterization when all he has to play against is gunshots and explosions.” –Richard Schickel, Time
“It gets your heart pounding, then it makes you hate yourself for it.” –Hal Hinson, Washington Post
“A serviceable if rather overextended and overblown adventure thriller.” –Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
“…as a human drama, it is disgusting and silly, a mindless depiction of carnage on an epic scale.” –Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
When Die Hard was released in the summer of 1988, the Reagan presidency was coming to a close as fallout from the Iran-Contra scandal lingered; Perestroika was in its infancy in the crumbling Soviet Union; medical waste was washing up on the beaches of New York and New Jersey; the U.S. surgeon general warned that cigarettes weren’t just bad for you, they were really, really bad for you; and Dan Quayle and Celine Dion were entering the national consciousness.
Maybe times were just too dire for film critics to know what to do with a tongue-in-cheek, postmodern action movie. Schwarzenegger and Stallone, to whom many critics at the time compared then-burgeoning star Bruce Willis, were still popular in grimmer, more lunk-headed fare. But one of the beauties of Die Hard is that Willis’s John McClane is not a muscle-bound machine; he’s a relatively ordinary guy thrust into the midst of a ludicrously elaborate Christmas robbery armed with, at the outset, merely a police-issue pistol and a glib sense of humor.
That elbow-in-the-ribs tone is the other facet that sets Die Hard apart from the Commandos and Cobras of its day. The movie takes its one-liners as seriously as its explosions (which is to say very), and it features a game cast that also includes Alan Rickman in a star-making turn as the unctuous heist leader Hans Gruber, Paul Gleason as the clueless Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (who provides his full title and name when introducing himself), Hart Bochner as a coke-snorting corporate climber and De’voreaux White as hyper-observant limo driver Argyle.
Never mind that it spawned a subgenre of weaker fare pitched as “Die Hard on a bus,” “Die Hard in a tunnel,” “Die Hard on a cruise ship,” etc., the original Die Hard is an ode to action movie joy and, dare I say it, a holiday classic.
1. Blast of Silence (1961)
Something of a footnote to the film noir era, Blast of Silence, the story of an obsessive Cleveland hit man in New York to carry out a Christmas-time job, received a welcome Criterion Collection restoration a few years back. The movie has long maintained a cult following built largely on its disquieting second-person narration (“You were born in pain,” the voice reminds Frankie Bono, who passes for the protagonist, “you were born with hate and anger built in”).
But the Criterion print is revelatory in illustrating the care that writer/director/actor Allen Baron and producer/ cinematographer Merrill Brody lavished on the film’s execution. Gorgeously filmed in a bustling New York strewn with holiday lights and filled with windows framing lavish Christmas displays, the movie allows viewers to bask in the visual contrast to the story’s dark heart and nervous energy as Frankie roams the streets, alternately stalking his prey and killing time while he waits for the silenced gun needed to carry out his assignment.
Although Peter Falk was originally to play Frankie (he left for a part in Murder, Inc., which led to an Oscar nomination), Baron brings a singular sense of twitchy discomfort to the role that leads to some of the movie’s few moments of humor (it’s hard to believe that even in a pre-Wii era, people could be bored and/or drunk enough to stage contests in which participants push peanuts across the floor with their noses).
Blast of Silence, as critic Terrence Rafferty points out in his essay that accompanies the Criterion release, managed to be simultaneously behind and ahead of its time. A distinction that, in its own way, gives it a sense of timelessness.