Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? We don’t know. But let’s assume for a moment that it is, and skip that tired debate. If Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie just because it’s set around Christmastime, then so does any movie more or less situated at the business end of the calendar.
That being the case, it’s time to retire your yippee-ki-yays and expand your holiday action movie playlist. All of these movies are great fun—well, maybe not “fun” in the holiday merriment sense, but solid films in their own right, whether or not you care about the Christmas angle.
Lethal Weapon, 1987
As a film series, Lethal Weapon has always played second fiddle to Die Hard, but the original entry is still a minor classic. The story of cops versus drug dealers hits a lot of the same beats—cops in LA, psychological trauma, and of course, Christmas— but it’s a little more willing to examine its protagonists and let them do more than shoot up a lot of real estate. It also has a few genuine laughs in its script. Say what you will about their later work, but there was never a better buddy cop duo than Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and that core dynamic is influencing action movies more than 30 years later.
Lethal Weapon is rated R. It’s streaming on HBO Max.
Maybe Bruce Willis isn’t trying as hard as an actor as he was way back in 1988. But the ensemble cast of RED, including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, and Mary Louise-Parker, is pulling extra weight. When a retired CIA agent flirts with his pension account manager, he unwittingly uncovers a conspiracy … which causes him to kidnap her (in a very nice way). They beat a road trip around the country to reunite his old spy buddies and get to the bottom of things. Is it Christmas-themed? Only in the most ancillary way possible. Is it fun? Ho-ho-hell yes.
RED is rated PG-13. It’s streaming on Fubo and Showtime.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, 2005
One of my personal favorites, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is the sleeper action movie that put Robert Downey Jr. back on the map as a leading man. The story has a lot of parallels to Die Hard, too: New Yorker comes to LA at Christmas, lots of people get shot, et cetera. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang isn’t much of a spectacle next to other movies on this list, but the razor-sharp dialog between burglar-turned-actor Harry (Downey), hard-boiled and very gay detective Perry (Val Kilmer), and Midwest transplant Harmony keeps you coming back. The movie is also a love letter to classic detective noir, directed and written by Shane Black of Lethal Weapon fame. He’s also got an attachment to Christmas, so this isn’t the last time he’ll appear on this list.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is rated R. It’s streaming on Hoopla, and available for rent everywhere else.
Eyes Wide Shut, 1999
This thriller is actually the very last movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, of 2001, The Shining, and Dr. Strangelove fame. Eyes Wide Shut is more contemplative and sensual than any of the other movies on this list—people die, but no one gets shot—and its New York City-at-Christmas setting is inconsequential. But seeing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at their A-list prime, in a movie beautifully constructed by a Hollywood master, is worth at least one viewing. Just prepare to be disturbed on a more fundamental level than any Nightmare Before Christmas re-run—this movie had to be cut down quite a bit just to get its R rating.
Eyes Wide Shut is rated R. It’s streaming on Hulu.
The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996
Hey look, another “Christmas” movie written by Shane Black! This one has a lot in common with The Bourne Identity and other spy thrillers, with the refreshing twist of Geena Davis as a female protagonist. When a car crash shatters her suburban fantasy life with recovered memories of general badassery, she takes off with private eye Samuel L. Jackson to discover more about her secret past. The film was met with lukewarm reviews back in 1996, but it’s recovered some since: Sam Jackson says it’s one of his favorites in his absolutely gigantic filmography.
The Long Kiss Goodnight is rated R. It’s not currently streaming on a subscription service, but it’s available for rent.
The Ice Harvest, 2005
A rare and refreshing example of Midwest noir, taking place on a frigid Christmas eve night in Kansas. Two thieves (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) just finished the take of their lives, but their getaway is spoiled by frozen Wichita roads. What follows is a madcap escape around town, running into interesting characters including strip club owner Connie Nielsen and an amusingly drunk Oliver Platt. Not an especially memorable movie on its own, I’m including it in this list because we need “Christmas” stories that aren’t set in New York or Los Angeles.
The Ice Harvest is rated R. It’s streaming on Peacock.
Iron Man 3, 2013
The only superhero movie on this list is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a reunion between writer and director Shane Black (again indulging in his love for the holidays) and Robert Downey “I am Iron Man” Jr. This third entry in the series is the most divisive: some fans of the comics don’t like the way it treats classic villain The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), but I like its twisty story and exploration of Tony Stark’s post-Avengers traumatic stress. The finale is easily the most interesting action set piece of any of the solo Iron Man movies.
Iron Man 3 is rated PG-13. It’s streaming on Disney+.
The Last Boy Scout, 1991
This underrated action movie from ’91 hits the hat trick of this list: Bruce Willis starring (alongside Damon Wayans, yet another buddy
cop private investigator), Shane Black writing, and a story set in Los Angeles. Oh, and vaguely set at Christmastime, but that really doesn’t matter. The hook is interesting: a football player gets a threatening call that says he must win the game or he’ll be murdered, leading to a shooting on national TV. But the meat of the movie is tension between the leads, who uncover each others’ pasts as they investigate a conspiracy entwining pro sports and government officials. Okay, not exactly merry, but the pace is great and the finale is pure Hollywood.
The Last Boy Scout is rated R. It’s streaming on Hulu.
Behind Enemy Lines, 2001
There are quite a few unrelated movies called “Behind Enemy Lines”—this one is from 2001, starring Owen Wilson in a brief attempt to pivot to action. An American fighter pilot is shot down over Bosnia, uncovering a localized genocide and getting shot down by rogue soldiers. On Christmas day, no less. Once his co-pilot is killed, Wilson must make their way across freezing European forests filled with enemies in order to escape and reveal the plot. The movie is passable if mostly forgettable, aside from Gene Hackman playing his typical authority figure. Skip the sequels—they’re related to the original Behind Enemy Lines in name only.
Behind Enemy Lines is rated PG-13, and it’s streaming on Starz and DirectTV.
In Bruges, 2008
It’s hard to make hitmen relatable, but in a very low-key and very European “Christmas” story, Colin Farrell manages it. After a hit goes wrong, his Irish mob boss (Ralph Fiennes) tells him to lay low in Bruges (roll credits!), Belgium, where he and his acerbic partner (Brendan Gleeson) take in the provincial sights while ruminating on his depression. In Bruges isn’t much of a Christmas movie or a mobster movie, but the small moments of character in its short runtime help make it memorable, and the gothic, tinsel-speckled scenery is fresh and interesting.
In Bruges is rated R. It’s available for rent pretty much everywhere.
Note that the streaming services listed above are based on the United States, and streaming being what it is, they might change around based on the time or where you’re reading this. If you want something that’s a little deeper, more definitively Christmas-themed, and much much more unhinged, check out Happy! on Netflix.