1) DIE HARD (1988) & DIE HARD 2(1990)
play "Jingle Bell Rock" - 1957 (Bobby Helms)
Hey, you know the story by now - New York detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) takes a trip to LA, attempting to patch things up with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) over the Christmas holiday. He meets her at her office, but before they can reconcile, the skyrise is taken over by a cadre of international super thieves attempting to secure the contents of the building’s high tech vault. McClane then launches a “one man war machine” stealth mission, taking out the bad guys in succession till reaching the criminal mastermind leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), who holds McClane's wife. Directed with a still-to-this-day-stunningly-athletic camera by John McTiernan (... and with big time kudos to cinematographer Jan DeBont) DIE HARD changed the face of the action / adventure movie for all time.
In the 1990 follow-up directed by Renny Harlin (CLIFFHANGER, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT), John is in Washington, D.C., visiting the in-laws during Christmas. When he travels to the airport to meet Holly’s flight, he falls headlong into another high tech criminal adventure - this one involving the plot of a renegade American Colonel (the underrated Bill Sadler) to free a Noriega-like South American general ( Franco Nero) from his military prison plane also en route to the very same airport.
Willis wasn’t the first choice for the role of McClane. It was
originally intended for Richard Gere until he bowed out. And while much
of the entertainment media originally scoffed at the idea of Willis
(then known primarily for the light comedy of MOONLIGHTING) top lining a
suspense thriller, the 1988 original would single-handedly turn the
former TV actor into one of the most popular action stars in big screen
2) LETHAL WEAPON (1987)
Many experience suicidal depression during the holidays, and this is the condition in which Mel Gibson’s signature franchise character (arguably more popular than his earlier Mad Max) is introduced to audiences in director Richard Donner’s 1987 actioner. Taking the ever popular mid 1980s “What if Rambo? …” plot scenario (as in PREDATOR’s “What if RAMBO met ALIEN?" and COMMANDO’s “What if RAMBO’s child was kidnapped?”) and spinning it into "What if Rambo with all his post-war trauma later became an LA cop?", LETHAL WEAPON - produced by DIE HARD's Joel Silver, became one of the most popular film series of the 1980s and 90s.
first film in the popular action franchise tossed together two former
Vietnam soldiers now LA cops (the “Odd Couple” of hair-trigger Gibson
and family man Danny Glover) who wage war on the streets of Los Angeles
with another group of vets (former military intel agents) operating a
lucrative drug trade via Southeast Asian heroin connections. Director Donner (THE OMEN-1976, SUPERMAN-’78, LADYHAWKE-’85) would bring a surprising degree of humor and character pathos (we fall in love with Glover’s family every bit as much as Gibson does) to what would emerge as the best of the new wave of “buddy cop” films following in the wake of 48 HRS (1982).
TRIVIA: While there had been talk of a potential LETHAL WEAPON 5 for years (talk fueled by the fact that original LETHAL WEAPON scribe Shane Black penned a much-remarked-upon treatment), Gibson, Glover and original series director Donner all emphatically stated they were not interested. In September of 2016, however, franchise owner Warner Bros. launched a LETHAL WEAPON tv series on the Fox network starring Clayne Crawford as Riggs, Damon Wayans as Murtaugh, and developed by Matthew Miller (LAS VEGAS, CHUCK). In fact the pilot episode was written by Black himself.
3) SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW (1997)
In contemporary Copenhagen, Denmark, biologist Smilla Jespersen (Julia Ormond) discovers the death of her child neighbor - officially ruled an accident (“The boy fell while playing on the snow covered roof of the apartment complex”) was no accident at all. As was the boy with whom she emotionally bonded, so is Smilla of Inuit Indian Greenlandic descent, and as such part of a looked-down-upon minority. Therefore as everyone around her celebrates the holiday season, Smilla embarks on a personal investigation to uncover the truth behind the child’s demise - a truth ultimately leading her back to the glacial landscapes of her homeland as well as the slowly thawing landscape of her own cold soul.
TRIVIA: With a powerhouse supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent, Tom Wilkinson and Bob Peck, it’s a wonder Billie August (THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS-1993)’s old school mystery thriller (with science fiction undertones!) didn’t make as big an impression in the U.S. as in other countries. If there is one fault it is perhaps the film’s running time. At 121 mins. it hits all the necessary plot points and characters of Danish author Peter Hoeg‘s popular 1992 novel. But in some respects it almost feels like an extended trailer as the audience is rushed through one event and new character to the next in too whirlwind a fashion. It deserved a good three hour cinematic treatment. Still highly recommended and rewarding for fans of mystery, suspense … and for those lamenting the lack of strong and realistic female protagonist characters. Definitely worth a look-see.
4) REINDEER GAMES (2000)
The final theatrical film of director John Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, BLACK SUNDAY, RONIN) was not his most well received, neither by critics or audiences. But we love it, especially if taken (as intended) as a contemporary noir exercise wherein plot, plot and more escalating and deliberately convoluted plot (a’la THE BIG SLEEP) is the story's reason for being.
As such the “reality” and “plausibility” of events take a back seat to their symbolism - sometimes surreal and reflecting the psyche of the central character as well as his/her perception of society. John Boorman does this with his 1967 contemporary noir POINT BLANK starring Lee Marvin. And it should be noted that Boorman’s film was similarly dissed at the time of it’s release, but went on to be considered a classic years later - certainly more so than it’s 1999 Mel Gibson remake PAYBACK.
At any rate, before we digress … In REINDEER GAMES Ben Affleck is a junior grade thief doing time for grand theft auto. As his release approaches all he wants is to sit down with his family over Christmas dinner and enjoy a little pecan pie. In the final days before his freedom he witnesses his cell mate killed in a mess hall scuffle. Then (in one of the oldest noir moves in the book) upon release claims to be that cell mate when he meets the deceased's sexy “pen pal” (Charlize Theron) - whom some might call "one of those flighty chicks like on TV" who has never met the late cell mate but claims to have fallen in love with him through their mail correspondences.
“Claims” being the operative word, as it turns out she was merely bait to involve him in a scheme to rob a lucrative casino where the cell mate used to work. The plan is to hit it on Christmas eve when it's tills are bursting at the seams, and it's concocted by Theron's "brother", a particularly psychotic Gary Sinise, having a grand 'ol time in straight up Elmore Leonard-style sleezy bad guy mode. In fact Leonard, the popular novelist of 3:10 TO YUMA, MR. MAJESTICK, 52 PICK-UP, OUT OF SIGHT, GET SHORTY and RUM PUNCH (aka JACKIE BROWN) was pretty vocal in how much he really dug REINDEER GAMES too.
TRIVIA: In an interview Theron later claimed REINDEER GAMES was a bad film, but that she’d done it out of her love for the films of John Frankenheimer. However in a much earlier interview with Affleck (a life long Frankenheimer fan - who's later directorial effort THE TOWN would very much capture some of the tone of REINDEER GAMES) the actor talked of how Theron was not familiar with the legendary director until he introduced her to his work. Whichever the case, when all is said and done we always felt her “distancing” herself from the failure of the film (tossing it under the bus, so to speak, to save face?) left a lot to be desired. Say what you will about Affleck as an actor (people are saying great things about him these days as a director), he at least stuck with the film, standing by it during it's initial theatrical drubbing. While not perfect REINDEER GAMES is as slickly and professionally executed (and a helluva lotta violent fun for those in the anti-Christmas mood … especially the image of those blood covered shotgun toting Santas) as anything Frankenheimer ever filmed.
5) THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996)
Director Renny Harlin (DIE HARD 2)’s fast, furious and funny contemporary mash-up of “Rip Van Winkle” and “Walter Mitty” stars Gena Davis as a meek wife, mother and teacher - living in suburban Pennsylvania, who discovers much to her chagrin (as well as that of her antagonists) that she's in actuality a former CIA “black ops” intel agent and assassin who left behind a great deal of unfinished business (and peeved former colleagues) on a deserted New Jersey beach onto which she washed ashore years ago with amnesia. Whew! Yeah, it's that kind of film. Accompanied by an “ethically challenged” private investigator (Samuel L. Jackson - who’s never been more hilarious or likable), she embarks on a Christmas week adventure to uncover the truth of her former life, which leads to a showdown with said former comrades now planning an act of domestic terrorism.
TRIVIA: Written by LETHAL WEAPON’s Shane Black (and fetching an at the time unheard of script bidding war price from emerging studio New Line Cinema), LONG KISS to this day remains the favorite of his own films by director Renny Harlin (CLIFFHANGER-1993, DEEP BLUE SEA-’99, 5 DAYS OF WAR-’11). While talk of a sequel has circulated since 2007, at present nothing definitive has emerged.
6) THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972)
One of our all-time favorite movies period! And it's no mystery why. Imagination runs amuck in producer Irwin Allen's seminal “disaster movie” which took hold of the movie-making paradigm in the early 1970s and wouldn’t let go until STAR WARS debuted five years later, becoming the new industry-wide “let’s rip that one off” filmic template.
In POSEIDON’s wake (pun intended) a slew of “ordinary people caught up in catastrophic events” flicks emerged; among them EARTHQUAKE, and even later Allen-ers such as THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE SWARM and the TV movie FIRE!. But with the exception of INFERNO, none would match POSEIDON for cleverness and old fashion adventure / suspense brio.
The story - on New Year’s eve the S.S. Poseidon (en route from New York to Athens) is struck by a 90 ft. “rouge” tidal wave and capsized. A small group (including Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowell, Jack Albertson, Caroll Lynley, Red Buttons and Shelly Winters - in an Oscar nominated performance) is convinced by “rouge” humanistic preacher Gene Hackman to not accept fate but to fight for something better. Heeding his words they embark upon a night long Homerian odyssey to reach the bottom of the ship (now the top) from whence a rescue will be most likely.
TRIVIA: At the time of POSEIDON’s production it was derided by some within the industry as “Irwin’s Folly”. 20th Century Fox, with whom Allen had a long relationship since the early 1960s (his TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, LOST IN SPACE, THE TIME TUNNEL and LAND OF THE GIANTS were produced and filmed there) was in the midst of financial crisis, and they originally pulled the plug on Allen’s multi-million dollar production just as it was to go before the cameras.
Ever resourceful, Allen struck a deal wherein if he raised half the budget the studio would foot the remainder. That afternoon Allen went across the street to an affluent country club, and on a handshake only agreement (no contracts signed) convinced a number of investors to foot his share. Production was resumed, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE went on to become the most successful film of the year; and Allen, his investors and Fox went on to reap a mint - POSEIDON helping to pull the studio from the brink of bankruptcy.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE would not only go on to spawn a sequel (the sub par BEYOND THE POSIEDON ADVENTURE in 1979) but two remakes - one for TV in 2005, then Wolfgang Peterson’s big budget IMAX released POSEIDON in 2006. It would also be a prototypical influence on a future slate of "sci fi disaster pics" such as Roland Emmerich’s INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) and 2012 (2009).