While usually thought of as a hackneyed cliché from the ’70s and ’80s, the buddy cop film has actually been around a lot longer than that. Some trace its roots back to Kurosawa’s 1949 film “Stray Dog,” with early adopters being the politically charged “In The Heat of the Night” (1967) and the “I Spy” TV show in 1965. But it really grew legs with such films as “Hickey & Boggs” (1972), “Freebie and the Bean” (1974) and “48 Hrs.” (1982), each adding to the genre its own flair and nuance. (Please note: while the term is “buddy cop,” in this post the genre includes films with people that aren’t necessarily police officers; rather it’s just two, usually mismatched, partners joined together to solve a mystery.) So although it’s not as if famed filmmaker Shane Black invented the buddy cop film, for the past four decades, he has reinvented and reinvigorated an otherwise predictable and tired genre by using recurring tropes, witty banter and impressive action.
After “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon” is easily the most influential action film of the last 35 years. The spawn of homages and knockoffs that came after it is staggering, using Black’s template of the loose cannon and his straight-laced partner who engage in comic repartee while also delivering explosive violence. But many of the imitators that followed, including the “Lethal Weapon” films where Black isn’t involved (although he originally scripted the 1989 follow-up, it was heavily rewritten), missed that special mystery ingredient he brought to the first entry. “Lethal Weapon” is unique not just for its go-for-broke take on action, but also because it begins the type of story and archetypal characters that Black would revisit time and again over his career.
So you’re stuck spending some “quality time” with the family around the holidays, when you’d rather be at the bar around the corner with your friends, or even in jail, as long as no one from your family is in jail with you. Someone wants to watch a Christmas movie. Everybody starts chirping like newborn chicks. You reach for the knitting needles, praying that they’ll hit something vital in your skull before you’ve experienced any pain.
Put the needles down, friend. There are other options that are more enjoyable and less permanent than death’s sweet, sweet kiss. Here are five movies that get us through the holidays with murderous impulses held firmly in check. Merry Christmas, everyone. Pass the bourbon.
Admit it: you secretly fantasize about a gang of white-collar criminals hijacking your holiday party and killing the fast-talking weasel in sales who won’t shut the hell up. You’ve read the praise about “Die Hard” serving as the blueprint for every action movie made since – and it’s true, as the most popular studio sales pitch between 1989 and 1997 was “Die Hard on a ____” – but it is grossly overlooked as a holiday classic, and that is just wrong. It’s funnier than “Home Alone,” more heartwarming than “The Santa Clause,” and it has what all Christmas movies lack but some real-life families have: a body count. Bruce Willis has rarely been better, and Alan Rickman completely rewrote the rules on action movie villains. If you feel like going for camp value, watch the sequel, “Die Harder,” with the TV dub track. Yippie-ki-yay, Mister Falcon.
The definitive dysfunctional family (which is really just a polite way of saying normal family these days) holiday movie. A cat burglar (Denis Leary) trying to lie low reluctantly kidnaps a couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) on the verge of divorce, just before the in-laws come over for Christmas dinner. Armed to the teeth with a before-they-were-stars cast (it also includes Christine Baranski, J.K. Simmons, and the great Raymond Barry) and directed by the gone-too-soon Ted Demme, “The Ref” is caustically funny, and one of the more quotable movies you’ll ever see. (The marriage counseling scene alone has a good dozen zingers.) Why did this movie fare so poorly at the box office? We’re guessing the release date may have played a part in it. Yep, they released it in March, just when the snow is thawing for good. Well played, Touchstone.
Better Off Dead
Up there with “Heathers” in the teenage suicide canon, “Better Off Dead” is one of the most diverse teen comedies of its time, combining clueless parents (love the scene where Kim Darby nearly kills John Cusack while vacuuming), animation, claymation, ski racing, exploding neighbors, the awkward first date, and a Japanese Howard Cosell impressionist. And it all takes place at Christmas, setting up the painful call when Cusack calls his ex-girlfriend Beth and learns that her new boyfriend bought her “a giant stuffed teddy bear, bigger than you.” Yes, Beth was a hottie, which explains why everyone from the mailman to Barney Rubble wanted to date her, but as longtime fans of “The Last American Virgin,” Cusack did well to bag the lovely Diane Franklin as a so-called consolation prize. Just make sure and pay that paper boy on time.
Drug deals gone wrong. Actors forced into being informants. Cops selling Amway. (“It’s Confederate Products, it’s completely different.”) Threesomes. Vegas hotel rooms on fire. Strip clubs. A hit and run. Monologues about “Family Circus.” And tantra, baby! Whatever crazy things you’ve done in your life, chances are you’ve never had a night like the characters in “Go,” and if you did, it sure as hell didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. Even funnier, the characters don’t even think about the day’s events in terms of being something out of this world. Indeed, a few of them – including the one who just pawned over-the-counter drugs as ecstasy in a club in order to pay her rent – immediately starts planning ahead, wondering what they will do for New Year’s Eve. Whatever it is, it won’t be as wild as what takes place here. Doug Liman has gone on to make some big, successful movies, but this one remains his best, as far as we’re concerned. It has a hell of a soundtrack, too.
Hookers and Christmas, together at last. Hey, what better way to come up with a little extra scratch around the holidays than to serve as the pimp for the girl down the hall? (We readily admit, though, that the idea of Shelley Long as a prostitute is even funnier now than it was then.) The movie may have served as a springboard for director Ron Howard and Michael Keaton (not to mention a comeback vehicle for Henry Winkler), but take a closer look at the supporting cast. Shannen Doherty as a Bluebell (“Mugger!”), the late Vincent Schiavelli as a surly delivery guy, and don’t blink during the party scene or you’ll miss Kevin Costner walking behind Keaton when he balances a beer bottle on his forehead. It may seem tame by today’s standards, but hey, it’s Christmas; not a bad time to show a little propriety.