By Jonathan Holmes
When we think of films centered on the holiday season, we think about old Scrooge letting his guard down and learning to care for others besides his greedy self, or we think about George Bailey realizing just how many lives he’s touched due to his philanthropic efforts, or we watch young Ralphie Parker become a gun nut and a future member of the National Rifle Association. These movies, in their own way, capture the spirit of the season: being with family and friends, bringing tidings of good cheer & good will towards men, and giving and receiving gifts.
While most think and watch movies about Christmas in these terms, my vision of Christmas movies is less Santa’s sleigh flooded with gifts and more of a sleigh filled with dead terrorists and psychotic ex-Vietnam vets peddling dope, all while John McClain rides on Rudolph’s back, shouting “yippie ki-yay, motherfucker!!” while Riggs & Murtaugh bicker about the latest shit-storm they’ve found themselves in, complete with Marion Cobretti gunning down anarchist thugs with an oozi at the back of the sleigh. Yes, hardcore action movies are on my mind at this time of the year, and while Die Hard is considered to be one of the best Christmas moves ever made (despite it being released in July), it’s Richard Donner’s buddy-cop action-comedy flick that really resonates me due to the script & story and the characters.
The story is pretty straight forward: LAPD detective Richard Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is assigned to Narcotics officer Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), a cop with suicidal tendencies after the death of his wife two years ago. Both men are on the trail of a psychopathic Vietnam vet known as Mr. Joshua (Garey Busey) who is carrying out phased out missions from “Shadow Company”, a special forces op that ran heroin out of the war-torn country. Again, it’s simple but the script does so many things right, like touching on how, for many veterans during that time period, the war never really ended for them, and using the Christmas setting, laced with a suicidal Riggs as a retort to this tiding of good cheer mantra, when it can also be the most painful and isolating time of year for some individuals. Shane Black, the screenwriter for the first movie, explains his use of Christmas as a backdrop as “a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives,” and that quote itself explains the two leading characters, Riggs and Murtaugh.
At the beginning of the story, Roger has hit the half-century mark of 50 and begins to contemplate his retirement from the force to spend more time with his family. In contrast Martin is a loner who still grieves over the loss of his beloved wife and constantly endangers his own life to spare his own pain. Both men are at a crossroads in their lives and find themselves as partners and friends despite their attitudes and styles – Murtaugh is by the book, Riggs is a wild-card who’ll blow the fuse on any explosive situation. It also helps that Danny Glover and Mel Gibson have such a natural rapport with each other that when their characters do bicker and bitch at one another, the effect isn’t one of obnoxiousness and annoyance, but an endearing example of how opposites come together and work out issues. In a few words, it’s one of the best partnerships ever put to celluloid, and a theme which becomes duplicated in many action films because of this series.