Die Hard is great, but it’s not the best Christmas action movie

Die Hard might be one of the greatest action movies ever made, but there's another film that makes for more explosive Christmas cheer

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

Make no mistake: Die Hard is one of the best Christmas movies of all time. John McClane’s defence of Nakatomi Plaza from German terrorist Hans Gruber is a carefully engineered thriller movie that delivers on all the bullets and yuletide mayhem one could ask for.

But when it comes to festive action movies, an unsung classic stands over Bruce Willis and his barefooted vigilante justice. An explosive, seedy, psychological film that features another star-making turn in the lead, another A-list co-star, and some extremely satisfying kills.

The Long Kiss Goodnight is a ’90s movie from director Renny Harlin and writer Shane Black that features Geena Davis essentially doing Jason Bourne several years before Matt Damon. Her character, Charly, is an amnesiac who, eight years prior, was found two months pregnant and washed up on a beach. She’s since settled down and raised a family, but her old life eventually resurfaces during one fateful holiday season.

That such a premise comes from Black isn’t a surprise, since a lot of his career has involved gangsters and cops working around tinsel and fairy lights. Charly and her eventual accomplice Mitch, a crooked investigator played by the inimitably cool Samuel L Jackson, are an odd couple very much in the spirit of Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon or Joe and Jimmy of The Last Boy Scout.

Geena Davis and Samuel L Jackson in The Long Kiss Goodnight

Mitch used to be a detective in Detroit, where it’s impossible not to get a little dirty, and he takes on Charly’s case to find someone – anyone – who remembers who she was. Their finding each other is fateful, as he becomes her only ally after hitmen threaten her partner and daughter. Normally, he wouldn’t get so involved, but since he “never did one thing right” in his life, he decides to stick around and see where the breadcrumbs of Charly’s past lead.

Mercenaries leave them with just the cash in their pockets, Mitch’s car, and whatever could be packed into a suitcase for resources. Like many great action films, The Long Kiss Goodnight runs on desperation and cunning. Mitch understands how to live on the edge, but Charly’s new to it, though she gradually learns she’s got some incredible muscle memory when it comes to knives and guns.

The only way Charly can save her present is to figure out her past, and she needs her former self to grapple with the sociopathic evil in front of her. Dream sequences reveal Samantha, Charly’s dormant personality, exclaiming that she’s going to take back control. She’s leaked out in drops, telling their child that “life is pain” in response to a skating injury, but now Samantha wants to be in the driver’s seat.

Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight

Charly faces an existential threat: not only could she lose her family, but also her very being. It’s what elevates the film both as a psychological thriller and a festive feature; Christmas is a crucial symbol for redemption, and losing it means losing her personhood. She undergoes a truly transformative arc that tackles the inescapability of her past and the opportunity for growth and acceptance, all while taking down sadistic government stooges. What’s more Christmassy than that?

By contrast, Die Hard is almost the opposite. John McClane doesn’t change, he impedes those around him by being the same relentless hard-nosed cop he is in New York City. There’s great pleasure in that, of course, and the terrified face of Hans as he drops from the top of the LA skyscraper has become a hallmark of good cheer.

But Die Hard’s view of Christmas is more cynical. John, our maverick protagonist, navigates festive turbulence through sheer force of will. The holiday season is integral to the setup, but it’s not something anyone really enjoys. Nakatomi’s office party is a sleazy, cocaine-addled affair; Hans is driven by opportunity; and John’s policeman friend Al works through December to avoid thinking about his issues.

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The only ones to whom it matters are Lucy and John Jr, the McClane children, and the gooey sentimentality comes from their family unit being restored in the climax. Die Hard and The Long Kiss Goodnight are similar odes to the potential difficulty of Christmas, all the stress and strain and what can feel like walking on glass barefoot and surviving multiple explosions. They’re fun to watch but they aren’t happy films, skewed by the general disenchantment of adulthood and understanding what the world’s really like.

The Long Kiss Goodnight finds reconciliation between the two poles of Hallmark optimism and time’s cruel tide. Charly finds strength in what Samantha endured to protect and uplift her quiet life. All the while, Mitch gets the escape he’d stopped even considering. They give each other the gift of understanding that leads to acceptance and better days. Die Hard celebrates the roguish grump who’d rather drink through the whole thing.

Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight

They share some DNA, as Harlin made Die Hard 2 right before The Long Kiss Goodnight. That explains some of the more cartoonish set-pieces, where children are thrown through walls into treehouses, and Samuel L Jackson is exploded out of a building. When you’ve directed John McClane having a fist fight on the wing of a commercial airliner, you can only go up.

Charly has a lot to thank John for, but he could do with a trip around hers for mulled wine and share in that warm fuzzy feeling. Die Hard might have the reputation as a Christmas necessity, but it’s not what I’m watching when I really want to be uplifted or see someone outsmart a baddie using Christmas lights. It’s the little things.