Lethal Weapon (1987) or The True Meaning of Christmas

Tis the season for dimwitted bloggers to complain about Die Hard being considered a Christmas movie.  It happens every year, regular as seasonal depression, and inspires about as much joy. Hot takes dribble out of the usual channels – Buzzfeed, The Washington Examiner, The Catholic Church, etc. – with a condescending confidence, oblivious to the fact that such a take is about as hot as two-day-old takeout.  These articles often attempt to justify Die Hard’s exclusion from the likes of The Santa Clause and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause by invoking arbitrary rules of Christmas movies by which it just does not abide.

The Christmas spirit is not the point of the movie.  It can be watched any time of year without guilt or fine. It wasn’t even released around Christmas.

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They range from pointless to insulting. The more amusing articles make the case that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie because it’s “better” than a Christmas movie, which manages to be both pointless and insulting.  No matter the quality of the attempt, every “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie” assassination is built on the same uneven ground – that there exists an objective, cosigned list of attributes that all true Christmas movies must follow.

Gremlins takes place inside a Norman Rockwell painting of Christmas, but it also contains a startlingly bleak (and brilliant) monologue about someone dressed as Santa Claus breaking their neck in a chimney and the corpse staying lodged there for five days.  Batman Returns features Christmas trees, giant presents and even a closing quote from the Biblical Christmas story, but also Danny DeVito biting off a man’s nose and drooling black slime. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is about how being different is only acceptable if your difference serves the general public. Santa With Muscles has Santa right in the title, but stars Hulk Hogan.

Where’s the line?  Wherever you want to draw it.  What’s a Christmas movie to you might be a Halloween movie to me (GremlinsKrampus; Silent Night, Deadly Night; etc.).  I’d say the only criteria is that a “Christmas movie” must make some mention of the holiday, but there could just as easily be a completely unrelated movie that resonates with the spirit of the season.

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Point is, if anyone tries to tell you something isn’t a Christmas movie, they’re wrong on principle. To the writers responsible for the equal-but-opposite wave of articles in defense of Die Hard as a holiday staple, bless you; you’re doing God’s work. But it shouldn’t even be necessary.

Die Hard takes place at Christmas. There is a Run-D.M.C. Christmas song on the soundtrack. John writes “Ho-Ho-Ho” on a dead terrorist’s sweatshirt. A climactic plot point hinges on festive gift-wrapping tape.  There are sleigh bells in the score, for crying out loud.

It’s a Christmas movie, forever cursed to appear in annual “Alternative Christmas Movies”  lists til the end of time or people realize Die Hard 2 is an even more “alternative” Christmas movie.

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Also on that yearly staple is another Joel Silver-produced, late-80s action picture that inspired its own retroactively reductive wave of rip-offs – Lethal Weapon.

Like Die HardLethal Weapon takes place around Christmas, shows off some expected seasonal sights and even includes a Christmas song. But it’s never received the same festive embrace as Die Hard, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Because while Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are both Christmas movies, Lethal Weapon is the better Christmas movie.

Die Hard certainly gets more airtime in December, so I won’t spend as long talking about it.  I mean it inspired its own subgenre, for goodness’ sake.

John McClane visits his estranged wife in California for her company’s Christmas party.  The plan? Win her back just by showing up.  But nothing betrays John’s odds like the couch an old cop buddy is offering for the night should things go south.  Almost immediately, John and his wife argue.  He loses. Then terrorists show up, leaving John as the only free man in the building to save the hostages, the day and his marriage in no particular order.  Considering he survived four more movies, it’s safe to say that John succeeds.

Boiled down to its baser parts, Die Hard is about an ordinary guy who’s a good cop and a bad husband with an unfortunate chance to prove he’s a good husband by way of being a good cop.  It’s an underdog story with heavily stacked odds (for a movie where people bleed when shot) and he doesn’t walk away without a few stains on his undershirt. In fact, thanks to a continuity error due to a cut scene, his undershirt changes colors entirely by the end.

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That’s the beauty of Die Hard. It’s clever, simple and packs a mean punch.

Onto Lethal Weapon.

 

Before the studio logos even have a chance to fade out, the opening jangles of Bobby Helms’s “Jingle Bell Rock” roll in and give way to the ultimate Christmas lights display – the twinkling, black expanse of Los Angeles at night.

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The crackling classic and Christmas cheer as a whole can only be interrupted by a half-naked girl, stoned to the point of believing she can fly, decides to test her faith and puts an impromptu sunroof in a very expensive car thirty floors below.

If that doesn’t get you in the spirit, I don’t know what will.

But hear me out.

The rest of the movie, as the title would suggest, is about a lethal weapon – Martin Riggs.  Despite the sequels’ evolution into violent sitcoms, the original Lethal Weapon makes a startling, often uncomfortable case for Riggs’s nickname.

He regularly contemplates suicide and keeps a special bullet on hand for the occasion. He drinks like a hyperventilating fish. He handcuffs himself to a jumper and jumps for the both of them.  In the director’s cut, he even ends a hostage crisis in a schoolyard singlehandedly by walking toward the sniper without an inch of cover and outshooting him with a just a pistol.

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As Riggs later admits, he has nothing to live for but the job.

Which comes as a shock to Roger Murtaugh, who has everything but his wife’s cooking to live for.  He’s a family man with a capital-F, and he’s just turned the big-one – fifty-years-old.  Murtaugh is hoping his birthday has earned him a slower pace on the beat, but instead his only present is a new partner to babysit – Riggs.

Of course, they learn to respect each other, become best friends and all live happily ever after. But that’s only obvious because of the sequels, neutered TV show and endless parade of “loose-cannon-meets-straight-laced” knock-offs moldering in the bottom of the Walmart $3 bin.

In the original Lethal Weapon, it’s hardly a given.

Murtaugh tires of what he perceives as Riggs’s act and calls him out on it. Riggs responds calmly, by taking Murtaugh’s revolver, shoving it under his own chin and pulling the trigger. The only thing that saved his life was the skin between Murtaugh’s pointer and thumb.

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Murtaugh isn’t so sure it’s an act after that.

Then comes the trust and respect, but only with the specter of Riggs’s death wish looming at the edge of every scene.

I swear I’m getting to the part where it’s a better Christmas movie.

The only reason Riggs wants an excuse to die is because his wife already did in a tragic car accident.  Lethal Weapon 2 expands on exactly what happened, but for all intents and purposes, the explanation is irrelevant.  The only person in the world that mattered to Riggs is gone, and he’s looking for any excuse to join her.  He is a burned out husk of a cop. But he is still a cop, and one of the best on the force.

And once the bodies start piling up in their wake, Riggs and Murtaugh kick into high-gear to piece it all together.  The suicidal tendencies are brushed aside as Murtaugh’s daughter is kidnapped. Riggs ends up hanged by his wrists and tortured with an electrified sponge all for a long-shot attempt to save his partner’s daughter.

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By the end, the proper ass is kicked on Murtaugh’s front lawn and Riggs comes to grips with his life.

Uplifting. Satisfying. Sure, it is. But hardly in the spirit of Christmas.

Until the very last scene.

Riggs, freshly bandaged, knocks on Murtaugh’s door. His daughter answers, so Riggs asks her to pass along a gift to her dad – the bullet he’d chosen for his suicide.  She doesn’t understand, but relents, and Riggs gets all the way back to the street before Murtaugh flags him down:

Murtaugh: After all we’ve been through, if you think I’m gonna eat the world’s lousiest Christmas turkey by myself, you’re crazy.

Riggs: I’ll tell you a little secret – I’m not crazy.

Murtaugh: I know.

Riggs: Oh good. Let’s eat.

Cue “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” some concluding banter and the end credits.

If Die Hard is about fighting for loved ones, Lethal Weapon is about finding them.

Riggs had nobody. Nobody to care about. Nobody to worry about. Nobody to fight for. And his recklessness got him paired up with Murtaugh.

Through many and various near-death scrapes and good plans gone wrong, they came to care about one another. More than the simple nature of mutual self-preservation would require.

They became family.

Riggs had a reason to stick around. He couldn’t clock out with Riggs still in the line of fire. It wasn’t just the job keeping him alive anymore. He had something to lose, somebody to lose, and he wasn’t about to lose either.

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Every Christmas movie to hit theaters since National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation makes a case for family distress around the holidays. Every Christmas movie to hit Hallmark says about the opposite – family is Christmas.  Usually the solution is hidden away in the dreamy eyes of that perfect stranger the main character bumps into in the grocery store. Or somebody stops being greedy or grumpy long enough to realize that buying things for others is better than buying things for yourself. More often than not, the movies side with the more neurotic family members, suggesting it’s the core unit that’s to blame and they should just grin and bear it because family.

And yet somehow a select few Christmas movies ever approach the holidays with a platonic lens.  It’s always about relatives or significant others or rekindled old flames or Santa Claus.

Rare is the Christmas movie about the family you choose for yourself.  Rare is the Christmas movie about friends.

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Lethal Weapon is a movie about the people you met through the slimmest circumstances, but now couldn’t get along without.  It’s about realizing what matters most, what keeps you going, and that’s not always Uncle Dave or scrambling for a relationship.

Die Hard is still a Christmas movie. It has been this entire time. I’d even say it’s a better movie than Lethal Weapon (tighter, at the very least).  But that’s not what this is about.

Like the definition of a Christmas movie, the reason for the season varies from household to household, person to person.  Some celebrate it in the most religious sense. Others don’t celebrate it at all. Some celebrate it by putting up the tree on the 24th and reducing it to kindling on the 26th.

But no matter faith or furor, Lethal Weapon has a message worth heeding around the holidays.

Take some time to appreciate the people that keep you going.  The coworker that keeps you sane in front of the customers. The old classmate you don’t see much these days but chat with every once in a while.  The neighbor who’d eat bad turkey with you even if it wasn’t Christmas.

The friends that remind you, whenever you need reminding, why you get out of bed every morning.

The friends that, no matter what anyone else thinks, know you’re not crazy.

Even if you are.

And that’s the true meaning of Christmas, Martin Riggs.

 

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