The 10 best Christmas action movies that aren’t ‘Die Hard’
(Credits: Far Out / Warner Bros. / Universal Pictures)
The wholesome, heart-warming, and whimsical favourites might take up most of the attention during the festive season, but Christmas movies have long since expanded into multiple other genres.
Whether it’s gross-out comedy, supernatural horror, knife-wielding slashers, sweeping fantasy or anything in between, the medium is in a constant state of evolution and expansion. Naturally, that extends into the action arena, but there’s always one film above all others that dominates that particular conversation.
Each and every year without fail, the debate on whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie rears its head, and as a result, it’s often easy to overlook that there are plenty of seasonal shoot ’em ups worth watching that don’t involve John McClane crawling around the Nakatomi Plaza’s air vents.
With that in mind, the following ten titles are all worthy of being revisited or experienced for the first time as Christmas Day approaches, offering plenty of bang for their Yuletide buck and decking the halls with boughs of bullets and broken bones along the way.
The 10 best Christmas action movies:
10. Riot (Joseph Merhi, 1996)
Elevated above the standard mindless straight-to-video fare and into the pantheon of festive cult favourites entirely by its setting and soundtrack, the shoestring budget and wooden acting of Riot is handily overcome by an unexpected volume of Christmas cheer and some bone-crunching stunt work.
Gary Daniels’ retired SAS operative is charged with rescuing the daughter of the British ambassador when she’s kidnapped during a Christmas Eve riot in Los Angeles, and that’s it plot-wise. Taking its cues from Escape from New York and The Warriors to name but two – albeit with a Yuletide twist – the actor’s no-nonsense Shane Alcott cuts a swathe through the opposition.
Packed with wall-to-wall fight sequences – many of which take place against the backdrop of city streets illuminated by Christmas lights – the constant seasonal songs that play throughout offer constant reminders of the carnage that, regardless of its shoestring budget and unquenchable thirst for violence, Riot is loaded full of both impressive action and holiday spirit.
9. Reindeer Games (John Frankenheimer, 2000)
John Frankenheimer’s final feature before his death may have flopped at the box office, taken a pasting from critics following its initial release, and been named by Charlize Theron as the worst movie she’s ever been in, but don’t let that affect opinion of Reindeer Games‘ status as a deserving staple of the gun-toting festive viewing calendar.
Alongside Theron, the eclectically star-studded cast also features Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise, Dennis Farina, Danny Trejo, Isaac Hayes, and Ashton Kutcher, all caught up in a zany crime caper that finds Affleck’s freshly-released convict Rudy seeking to start a new life with Theron’s dream girl.
Naturally, her brother has the complete opposite idea, with he and his band of hardened criminals recruiting Rudy against his will to assist them in a high-stakes casino heist. Contrived to the point of being nonsensical it may be, but for a Christmas film that requires the brain to remain firmly switched in the ‘off’ position, it’s got plenty of merit.
8. Invasion U.S.A. (Joseph Zito, 1985)
Christmas is a time when a lot of people overindulge on cheese, so what better way to do so from a figurative perspective than watching Chuck Norris decimate an entire army single-handedly?
Arriving at a time when Russians were the villains of virtually every Hollywood actioner, a Soviet terrorist previously captured by Norris’ Matt Hunter leads a guerrilla army to carry out attacks all over Florida, forcing the double denim-sporting leading man to put a stop to their nefarious plan the only way he knows how.
Invasion U.S.A., taking place in the days leading up to Christmas, offers the unforgettable sight of Norris gunning down his enemies against the backdrop of many a festive decoration, with the film having no interest in drama or tension when the only thing on its mind is to see the bearded roundhouse-kicking star rack up as high a body count as possible. Spoiler alert, but he does that and then some.
7. I Come in Peace (Craig R. Baxley, 1990)
A sci-fi serial killer thriller that simultaneously serves as a Christmas movie sounds insane on paper, and while that’s entirely true, it doesn’t even begin to convey the ridiculousness of Dolph Lungren vehicle I Come in Peace.
The Rocky IV star’s renegade police officer, Jack Caine, is investigating a string of drug-related murders, only to end up with significantly more than he bargained for. Why? Obviously, because an intergalactic drug lord called Talec has been injecting his victims with heroin and then extracting their endorphins for the purpose of taking the brain matter back to his home planet to turn into a high-grade narcotic.
Utterly bonkers would be doing it a disservice, but it fits the bill as a festive film, one that’s packed with Yuletide iconography. There are familiar holiday songs, several shots of It’s a Wonderful Life playing on various televisions, and Lundgren diving through the air as an entire field of Christmas trees explodes behind him.
6. Violent Night (Tommy Wirkola, 2022)
As the director of Dead Snow, its sequel Red vs. Dead, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Tommy Wirkola had already showcased his chops for turning a winter wonderland into a blood-soaked battlefield and reinventing iconic folklore to suit his own demented agenda.
Unsurprisingly, then, Violent Night turned out to be a twisted delight so popular that a sequel is currently being developed. Refitting Santa’s backstory to position him as a fearsome warrior of legend, somehow it makes complete sense within the context of the story as David Harbour’s not-so-jolly old Saint Nick embraces his past to turn the tables on a team of mercenaries who’ve taken a family hostage.
Laced with jet-black humour but never winking directly at the audience, Violent Night walks an absurd tonal tightrope but somehow manages to pull it off. Bold and brutal, Harbour’s savage Santa still retains the twinkle in his eye despite the trail of devastation he leaves behind, with the holiday spirit remaining intact regardless of how many bodies are broken along the way.
5. The Tower (Kim Ji-hoon, 2012)
A cross between The Towering Inferno and Die Hard that retains the latter’s seasonal setting, The Tower is a significantly better combination of the two aforementioned classics than Dwayne Johnson’s dismal Skyscraper could have ever hoped to be, and it’s extra Christmassy to boot.
Kim Sang-kyung’s Lee Dae-ho is a single father and manager of the titular 120-storey structure and sees the building’s Christmas Eve party as the perfect time to make a move on the restaurant manager that’s become the object of his affection. Just when he’s worked up the courage, though, disaster strikes.
Strong winds cause a helicopter to crash into the tower, lighting the touchpaper on a fire that rapidly begins spreading through the floors. Part disaster epic and part action thriller that even boasts an everyman hero at its core, The Tower offers a fresh twist on the standard ‘Die Hard in a [insert mode of transport/location here]’ formula with the added bells and whistles of Christmas.
4. The Long Kiss Goodnight (Renny Harlin, 1996)
The prospect of director Renny Harlin and star Geena Davis reuniting immediately after Cutthroat Island – a flop so infamous it killed a studio – for another action-packed blockbuster was understandably greeted with trepidation at the time, which may have contributed to The Long Kiss Goodnight under-performing at the box office.
In the years since, it’s become a firm favourite of the festive viewing schedule, with the star’s amnesiac suburbanite Samantha Caine turning her peril on its head once she rediscovers the latent skills of deadly operative Charly Baltimore that were buried deep within following a bullet to the head.
The chemistry between Davis and Samuel L. Jackson’s motormouthed private eye Mitch Henessey is palpable, Shane Black’s signature rat-a-tat dialogue delivers plenty of zingers and one-liners, and it’s all set against the snowy backdrop of Christmas. So much so that the film quite literally begins with Elvis Presley’s version of ‘Santa Claus is Back in Town’ and a parade that sees Davis kitted out as Mrs. Claus.
3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Regardless of its status as a stone-cold classic Christmas action movie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang inadvertently became a pivotal moment in modern blockbuster cinema after Jon Favreau was so blown away by Robert Downey Jr’s performance that he couldn’t see beyond the actor as his perfect casting for Tony Stark in the in-development Iron Man.
Beyond that, the banter between Downey Jr’s out of his depth criminal Harry Lockhart and Val Kilmer’s hilarious Perry van Shrike is top-notch, with the mismatched duo drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that weaves a meta-narrative through the seedy underbelly of Hollywood.
There aren’t many filmmakers with a love of Christmas anywhere near as obvious as Shane Black, with his feature-length directorial debut folding all of his favourite seasonal tropes and trappings into a roller-coaster of murder, mystery, intrigue, and pitch-perfect deadpan comedy that’s happy to flirt with parody without descending into it.
2. Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
Beyond being set during the Christmas season – with Gotham City’s tree playing a prominent background role throughout – the themes of Batman Returns are easily interpreted as being tied to the most wonderful time of year, even in a spandex and leather-clad superhero sequel.
Even ignoring the various songs and decorations heard and seen at various points, it’s not a stretch to position Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck as the narrative’s twist on Ebenezer Scrooge or even the Grinch in the way his malevolent machinations unfold, with the crippling fear of loneliness many feel during the Christmas period on full display through not just Bruce Wayne, but the Penguin and Catwoman as well.
Of course, it’s nigh-on impossible to dispute Batman Returns‘ status as a Yuletide staple when henchmen are literally being launched out of giant presents and the title hero wishes butler Alfred a ‘Merry Christmas’ right before the credits start rolling, and it helps exponentially that Tim Burton’s gothic blockbuster remains one of the best and most rewatchable comic book sequels ever made.
1. Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)
Buddy cop classic Lethal Weapon opens with a Christmas song, features a character dying by way of a bullet that goes right through a carton of eggnog directly facing the camera and ends with a scrap between Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs and Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua taking place on a street packed with houses covered in decorations.
That’s without even mentioning the Christmas tree of Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh being destroyed when he and Riggs drive a car straight through his living room wall, or the fact the actor who plays his wife – Darlene Love – originated the classic track ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).’ All that, and unlike Die Hard, Lethal Weapon wears its status as a Christmas movie proudly on the sleeve.
Even Riggs’ arc resolves with him finding a sense of family for the first time in a long time just in time for December 25th, all wrapped up in an inarguable action classic that influenced an entire subgenre for decades to come.