The holidays are a time of tradition, of engaging in yearly rituals with family and friends in an attempt to fill yourself with the good feelings of the season. This takes a lot of different forms — putting up festive decorations, caroling, shared dinners with rarely seen loved ones. It can be something extravagant or as simple as a rewatch of a favorite film saved all year just for the occasion.
One movie that has achieved this yearly reverence is the groundbreaking 1988 action classic Die Hard. This special distinction has not come without controversy. A vocal contingent adamantly decry its placement among other, more traditional and revered holiday films. They believe the story of NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) saving the occupants of Nakatomi Plaza from Euro-trash thieves on Christmas Eve is just not suitable holiday fare. The film’s equally vocal defenders argue the copious amounts of references to the holiday contained in the film are more than enough for it to be considered a classic of the season.
This difference of opinion has led to another yearly tradition — a heated debate over whether Die Hard is a “Christmas movie” or not. It’s an argument that has raged for years, with no signs of slowing down or finding common ground. It has become a tedious talking point for some and has left even hardcore action-movie fanatics dreading hearing the words “Die Hard” and “Christmas” together. For those people who need a break from the discourse but still want to enjoy a little seasonal cinematic ass-kicking, we have curated a list of 10 action-packed films with connections to the holidays (both big and small) that are available to watch from the comfort of your couch. Who knows — one of these entries could become the next subject of never-ending debate or, more importantly, a new yearly favorite.
Where to watch: Max
When Warner Bros. tasked Tim Burton with crafting a follow-up to the wildly popular 1989 film Batman, they basically asked the idiosyncratic filmmaker to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time. He took on the impossible job of re-creating the massive success of that film (and the blank check given to him by the studio to do so) and instead produced a film that doubles down on all the bizarre and fetishistic elements of the original. This defiant choice by Burton resulted in 1992’s Batman Returns being the strangest live-action film adaptation of the popular comic book hero to date. The surreal feeling that permeates this dark and moody sequel is only heightened by the fact that the entire story takes place around the holidays. The early-era horror film aesthetics and the gothic, meticulously constructed sets awash in wintery white give the feeling of watching stars Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Danny DeVito square off in the world’s gloomiest snow globe.
At the time, summer moviegoing audiences were dumbfounded by the macabre Christmas vibes on display and the tale of costumed weirdos that battled more with their own repressed identities than they did with each other. With the benefit of time and perspective, Batman Returns has solidly claimed a place among the upper echelon of Batman media for its fresh, nuanced take on timeless characters and stunning visuals. It also makes great holiday viewing for anyone who feels burnt out on the cheer of the season.
Where to watch: VOD
The use of a Christmastime setting in a movie is not always meant to inspire good feelings. Sometimes the holiday backdrop is meant for irony and contrast. 1986’s Cobra, for example, has colorful wreaths and Santa cutouts in several of its scenes. These festive decorations are out-of-place bits of cheerfulness dressing up the unwelcoming atmosphere of the dingy storefronts and rain-slicked streets that litter this story of a hard-nosed cop, Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone), clashing with a deranged serial killer and his cult of equally violent followers.
While it was considered a failure at the time of its release, Cobra has aged well as a prime example of Reagan-era action movie excess — a time when the heroes on screen were defined by the size of their muscles and the guns they carried. It’s unapologetically violent and more than a little trashy. But with its short run time and unwillingness to go more than a few minutes without something outrageous happening, whether it be a wild car chase or Stallone bizarrely eating a slice of pizza with a pair of scissors, Cobra consistently entertains.
Where to watch: Tubi
Dark Angel is, in many ways, a standard example of the sort of action movie that was so prevalent in the late 1980s. A loose-cannon police officer (Dolph Lundgren), obsessed with his job and in a failing relationship, is saddled with a by-the-book federal agent in a quest to bring down the ruthless crime lord who murdered his previous partner. What sets the film apart from the glut of other “mismatched partners” films of the era is the heavy dose of sci-fi dropped into the familiar “renegade cop” story structure. The film’s real antagonist is surprisingly outlandish — an intergalactic criminal who has come to Earth to forcibly harvest drug-soaked human brain fluid to peddle to space junkies.
Dark Angel (aka I Come in Peace) is a rock-solid genre mashup with all the irony-free, square-jaw hero moments, over-the-top one-liners (“And you go in pieces, asshole”), and thrilling practical stunt work that isn’t seen much anymore in modern-day action filmmaking. All that plus a holiday setting (burning Christmas tree lots, gratuitous shots of It’s a Wonderful Life playing on television, and holiday decorations visible throughout) adds up to a seasonal choice perfect for any genre fan who counts films like Predator and They Live among their favorites.
Where to watch: Arrow, VOD
A young boy left alone is forced to protect himself from an intruder on Christmas Eve using only makeshift weapons and traps. The makers of Home Alone took that concept and built a successful family film franchise around it. But they were not the first to use it. In fact, there is a case to be made they borrowed that core idea from this much darker French-language film released the year prior.
It’s only fitting that Deadly Games (aka Game Over and 3615 code Père Noël) would inspire other filmmakers, as some of its iconography is an obvious homage to Rambo: First Blood Part II and Commando. The young protagonist of Deadly Games loves action films and regularly plays in his family’s massive home by imitating American action stars, sneaking from house plant to house plant with his hair secured with a hand-tied headband, brandishing toy weapons, and wearing jungle-stripe face paint. When the house is broken into by a deranged knife-wielding man disguised as Santa, the boy decides to suit up (in a montage that would make Schwarzenegger proud) and defend his home by playing an all-too-real version of his favorite war game.
With its truly unnerving antagonist and sudden bursts of bloody violence against children and animals, Deadly Games is definitely not a film for the whole family. Anyone who enjoys cynical Christmas fare, though, will likely find a lot to love in this obscure cinematic oddity.
Where to watch: Tubi, Pluto TV, Freevee, Roku Channel
Invasion USA is one of the only entries in Chuck Norris’ filmography that truly understands the current appeal of the former world karate champion. This 1980s “Red Scare” cult classic finds Russian terrorists invading the southern Florida coast (during the days leading up to Christmas) and, of course, only the ginger-haired living internet meme himself can thwart their nefarious plot.
Since there is never any doubt that he will save the day, the film rarely tries to build any tension or set any stakes. Instead, it goes all in on mythicizing its stone-faced leading man and mining that for all the over-the-top entertainment it possibly can. Norris is portrayed as nothing short of a boogeyman for bad guys, a stoic denim-clad Jason Voorhees that appears out of nowhere and ruthlessly decimates machine-gun-brandishing goons. One of the villains who survives an early encounter with him even grapples with nightmare-inducing PTSD like a teen survivor in a slasher movie. There are too many preposterous, but entertaining, moments to mention them all, but a few highlights include: a military assault on a suburban neighborhood that’s in the midst of decorating for the holidays; a bazooka standoff framed like a Wild West gunslinger duel; and Norris himself wrangling a live alligator! It’s great fun for anyone who still gets a chuckle from the occasional Chuck Norris fact.
Where to watch: VOD
It would be possible (and all too easy) to make a list of action films set during the holiday season completely filled with films written by Shane Black. The uber-successful screenwriter has long juxtaposed the cheer of Christmas with the mayhem found in the genre. While this choice has appeared in the majority of his produced screenplays, it all began here with his script for Lethal Weapon. This highly influential film has been cited as directly causing the use of holiday imagery in the original Die Hard. It also popularized the “mismatched partners” trope that was prevalent in action projects during the rest of the late ’80s and well into the ’90s.
Despite its clever script overflowing with iconic action and razor-sharp dialogue (all expertly captured by The Goonies director Richard Donner), the film has not been embraced as a rebellious Christmas classic like the original Die Hard. This is likely due to various controversies surrounding members of the Lethal Weapon cast that justifiably repel many potential viewers. For those that feel like wading in, they will be rewarded with a film that goes along with John McClane’s initial Christmas Eve adventure like gingerbread and eggnog.
Maniac Cop 2
Where to watch: Shudder, AMC Plus, Tubi, Roku Channel, Crackle
A sequel to a horror movie about an undead police officer terrorizing the streets of New York, at a glance, would seem out of place on this list. Not because it lacks in references to the holidays; those are definitely there (but admittedly sparse). Action is just not typically a focus of the horror genre.
Maniac Cop 2, however, trades tension and jump scares for some of the finest stunt work of its era. People are lit on fire in full-body burn stunts that seemingly last forever. Others are thrown through second-story windows with only cars and concrete to break their fall, or strapped to the outside of vehicles wildly careening out of control down the highway. The amount of daredevil acts on display here is truly breathtaking. It even includes a shootout as the titular zombie killer storms a police station with an automatic weapon, reminiscent of a similar scene in The Terminator, that sees his victims propelled back on wires in homage to Hong Kong action movies that were gaining cult popularity in America at the time. It can be debated whether or not Maniac Cop 2 is a Christmas film. But it is, without question, as much an action film as it is horror, and a great one at that.
Where to watch: Max, Criterion Channel
The chaotic action climax of a classic, Hong Kong-era Jackie Chan film is a very unlikely place to stumble across some random Christmas cheer. In 1985’s Police Story (directed by Chan himself), the final sequence is a wild kung fu brawl that takes place inside a bustling indoor shopping mall. Throughout the intensely choreographed fight, as bodies are crashing through multiple panes of glass from fiercely delivered blows, we can clearly see holiday shoppers carrying brightly wrapped packages, signs surrounded by images of Christmas trees declaring “Merry Christmas,” and countless numbers of holiday lights.
Those same lights also play a factor in one of the grandest stunts of Chan’s legendary career. At one point during the melee, he jumps several feet from a guardrail on one of the building’s upper floors to a pole adorned with strings of Christmas lights. Chan then proceeds to slide an amazing six stories down the pole, demolishing the lights along the way, before he crashes through a glass enclosure at ground level and lands with a thud, destroying a wooden table in the process of breaking his fall. No crash mats or airbags were used, and the stunt is shown in the film as one long take and repeated from multiple angles to illustrate its authenticity. Chan walked away from this insane stunt relatively unscathed, with only burns on his hands from the heat of the lights and a dislocated pelvis from hitting the table. A true Christmas miracle.
Where to watch: VOD
This 1996 video store staple is one of the strongest efforts from underrated English martial artist Gary Daniels. The story involves a retired SAS officer who is tasked with saving the British ambassador’s daughter after she is kidnapped during a massive Christmas Eve riot in Los Angeles.
The whole endeavor is a riff on cult classics like Escape From New York and The Warriors with less than 10% of those films’ budgets but with 100% more spin kicks, fights with motocross gangs, and professional boxing legends (“Sugar” Ray Leonard appears briefly as Daniels’ old war buddy and gets to engage in a few fisticuffs during a memorable bar brawl). Riot may be light on smarts and originality, but it is chock-full of brilliant action designed by the madmen behind Maniac Cop 2 (and also the stunt work for massive Hollywood productions like Fast & Furious 6, Venom, and 21 Bridges, to name just a few). It even features stunts performed by future John Wick head honcho Chad Stahelski.
The mayhem on screen is top-notch, and much of it is even set on streets illuminated with Christmas lights. That plus a soundtrack of almost nothing but holiday standards makes Riot one of the most festive (and fun) entries on this list.
The Last Boy Scout
Where to watch: VOD
John McClane is not the only character in Bruce Willis’ lengthy acting career that engaged in Christmastime heroics against seemingly unbeatable odds. Private eye Joe Hallenbeck, from the 1991 neo-noir The Last Boy Scout, also shares that very specific distinction.
The burnt-out, misanthropic gumshoe comes from a script by Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black. And, like that film, the story of The Last Boy Scout offers a deceptively complex narrative that quickly escalates, from Hallenbeck being hired to work as a bodyguard to eventually getting pulled into solving a murder and unraveling a sinister conspiracy involving sports betting and political assassination. It may sound like the film is all about sleuthing, but Black’s script and bombastic direction by the late Tony Scott (Top Gun) give Willis plenty of opportunity to blow away bad guys while delivering wonderfully snarky dialogue in the way only he can.
Part of the reason The Last Boy Scout is not spoken of as a Christmas action classic is because it’s easy to overlook the fact the story takes place during the holidays. Outside of one line of dialogue (and a tiny running gag about a sinister Santa Claus variant), the film doesn’t lean into its holiday setting nearly as much as other Shane Black-scripted films like The Long Kiss Goodnight and Iron Man 3 (both great supplemental additions to this list). Christmas doesn’t always feel very festive or like a priority as daily life whizzes by. In that respect, the disregard for the trappings of the holiday feels refreshingly realistic.