Another holiday, another hot take…. But seriously, this annual “Die Hard is the best Christmas film ever” thing has gone bananas. There are so many Christmas films out there—why has this become the hill we die on?
I’m going to be extra aggravating and contrary because Die Hard is not the greatest Christmas movie ever. But there is someone in Hollywood who regularly cracks out amazing Christmas films. He happens to be the guy who named Die Hard.
It’s Shane Black.
Funny enough, I kept thinking that Shane Black had written Die Hard, and then realized it was because I had absorbed this absurd piece of trivia: Black had planned to use the name Die Hard for a different film he was writing, but producer Joel Silver asked if he could swipe the title for his latest project, which was currently named after the book it was based on: Nothing Lasts Forever. Black gave him the go-ahead, and his own film was eventually retitled The Last Boy Scout. It’s pretty clear who drew the cosmically better straw in that situation.
Like Die Hard, the film he christened for greatness, the majority of Shane Black-penned scripts take place during Christmas. Moreover, Die Hard was only set at Christmas because Joel Silver noticed how well the backdrop worked in Lethal Weapon, and cribbed it for Die Hard’s use. So there you go—your favorite Christmas movie is only a Christmas movie because Shane Black created the concept of the Christmas action flick. It is already proven.
Following a few interviewers pointing it out his mild obsession with Christmas, Black has said that the use of Christmas in his films has become a “gimmick” now, and he’s probably done with it. Which is sad… because he makes better Christmas movies than just about anyone in Hollywood.
When someone at Entertainment Weekly asked Black about this narrative reflex of his, here was his answer:
“It tends to be a touchstone for me. Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days, a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives. I tend to think also that it just informs as a backdrop. The first time I noticed it was Three Days of the Condor, the Sydney Pollack film, where Christmas in the background adds this really odd, chilling counterpoint to the espionage plot. I also think that Christmas is just a thing of beauty, especially as it applies to places like Los Angeles, where it’s not so obvious, and you have to dig for it, like little nuggets.”
This concept of assessment and retrospection has led Shane Black to treat the holiday as a point of rebirth for many of his characters. This gives most of his films that fairy-tale like sheen, similar to what makes Die Hard so successful. And making it Christmas in L.A. (which the majority of his films do), offers a different sensibility to the use of the holiday on film. After all, Christmas is normally considered an atmospheric holiday. The secular and capitalist trappings that have grown up around it for many Americans leave us with vague impressions: snow, gifts, warm drinks, roaring fires, a little bit of magic in the air. But Christmas in Los Angeles takes a little more planning, a little more facade, a little more discovery. And given that Shane Black yarns are often of the mystery/action/thriller variety, the sense of discovery is baked right in.
There are six Shane Black films that use Christmas as an explicit narrative mechanism: Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013), and—for a brief moment at the end—The Nice Guys (2016). Each of these stories is framed by the holiday in ways both whimsical and disconcerting.
Sometimes Christmas is used as a juxtaposition against the insanity and brutality that the characters are being exposed to: in The Long Kiss Goodnight, Charly cuts down a dead man’s body bound up in Christmas lights; in Lethal Weapon we watch Martin Riggs brutally beat the film’s antagonist on the lawn of his partner’s decorated house. Sometimes Christmas is meant to sharpen the sense of how isolated people can be during the holidays: in Iron Man 3, Tony Stark cannot figure out what an appropriate gift is for Pepper Potts and settles on a gigantic stuffed rabbit; in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Harmony Faith Lane is spending the holiday trying to figure out who murdered her little sister. So the holiday is atmospheric, but it’s also there to create a outside pressure on the characters: they should be happy, they should be with family. They shouldn’t have problems right now.
Despite their yuletide trauma, all of these people end up better off then they were when they started, usually by forging new relationships and gaining a renewed sense of purpose. The mystery and the mayhem are actually sidenotes—they provide the intrigue and a reason for people to come together, they give us our explosions and car chases, but these stories are really just about screwed up people finding more screwed up people to spend their time with.
Shane Black has a definite obsession with mutual partnerships where one or both parties save one another and find meaning in being connected. It’s a special little corner of the “found family” narrative that make his films oddly comforting, especially as Christmas tales. While your average Christmas story is about flesh and blood ties and the occasional romance, there are plenty of folks who do not (or cannot) key into those feelings. Black’s buddy narratives offer a healthy alternative to being alone during those times of year when the world insists that you shouldn’t be. Riggs has Murtaugh. Charly has Mitch. Jimmy has Joe. Harry has Perry. March has Healy. Tony has Rhodey. And usually one half of this partnership has some family to speak of, but the important part is that defeating extremely nasty people together is a sure sign that you’ve found your non-romantic soulmate.
These stories are all fantasies in their own way, with a healthy heaping of magic, despite the constant litany of violence. Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout both turn around men who essentially must make the choice to live: James Dix gives up steroids and football to become a cop alongside his new friend Joe Hallenbeck; Martin Riggs gifts his partner Roger Murtaugh with the bullet he was going to use to kill himself on Christmas, having finally found catharsis after the death of his wife. Both Iron Man 3 and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang use bracketing narration to frame their tales in a decidely ‘Once Upon A Time’ fashion: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang unfolds like a spy novel, despite Perry Shrike’s insistence to Harry that real life doesn’t work that way. Iron Man 3 is a story about a superhero learning to confront his own life, his own fears, his own self-worth. It is about Tony Stark realizing that the Iron Man suits themselves are not what make him a worthwhile person. The Long Kiss Goodnight is essentially a sleeping beauty narrative—if Sleeping Beauty herself were a devastatingly efficient killer who was never in need of a prince.
Telling these magical stories against the backdrop of seedy city lights and grimy alleyways makes our need for holiday spirit that much stronger. People are lying and cheating and extorting and dying all over the place, and Christmas is here to help connect you to your loved ones. Who you don’t realize are your loved ones yet. After all, how could Harry Lockhart guess that he would befriend a gay detective after he’s accidentally flown out to Hollywood by people who mistook him for an actor? How could Jimmy Dix figure that the grumpy P.I. helping him out used to be his number one football fan? How could Charly Baltimore know that recalling her long-dead past would create a bond between she and Mitch that survives bombs and shotgun blasts? It took Christmas to make these things come clear. It took mayhem and trauma and a few strings of rainbow lights.
Not all holiday magic revolves around Santa Claus and flying reindeer. Sometimes it is delivered in the form of a family you’ve been waiting for. After you solve crimes. And argue pettily. And get grievously injured. And drink too much. That’s the gospel according to Shane Black—and it’s a pretty great one, too.
Originally published in December 2017.