It’s Christmas time and that means holiday treats, gift giving and maybe some themed movies or music. But for many in the military, Christmas means still being on base or on duty. But there’s always time for some entertainment. And that means some Christmas movies. But instead of watching classics like Miracle on 34th St. or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this year try something a bit more action-oriented. 

For service members spending the holiday in the barracks, here are some unconventional Christmas movies to enjoy, almost all of them with a military connection. After all, the military has Santa’s back every Christmas, even if it won’t let troops dress up like Santa and go up in a helicopter

There are also several Hallmark Christmas movies about veterans or active-duty troops, but for this list Task & Purpose is focusing on the more action-oriented films. For the sake of dealing with the red-nosed reindeer in the room, Die Hard is not going to be on this list. It’s a great movie, but let’s not have that discussion again. Here are half a dozen other, non-Die Hard Christmas action and thriller films. 

First Blood

If you want a fantastic drama and thriller about veterans adjusting to coming home, First Blood is for you. Fun fact, it’s also a Christmas movie. Special Forces veteran and former POW John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone at his most depressed) gets harassed by local cops during the Christmas season, after finding out an old wartime buddy is dead. All John wanted for Christmas was a hot meal and to see a friend. Instead he’s out in the cold using his military training to take on a small army. His situation is so bad that Rambo wishes he was back at then-Fort Bragg (now Fort Liberty). It’s a compelling, well-acted film with great suspense. All of that being said, unlike later Rambo films, First Blood is without mirth and pretty dour. Be prepared for a serious film. 

Violent Night

As we have established, Santa is not a soldier or veteran. But he’s military-adjacent at this point. And sometimes the premise of Santa Claus versus heavily armed henchmen in modern times is too good to pass up. Tommy Wirkola (the same director of the delightfully gory Nazi zombie movie Dead Snow) lets Santa (David Harbour) go to town on these assault rifle-wielding goons, kicking their butts with hammers, fists and other implements. Old St. Nick was out delivering presents when he has to rescue a family from robbers. There’s plenty of good fun here, but we do have to wonder — Santa versus henchmen in a mansion feels like a squandering of the premise. Why not have the North Pole invaded, and Santa having to go on a Die Hard-type mission inside his own workshop? Either way, Violent Night excels at Santa fighting people.

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Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Despite a fantastic, instantly engaging title, this fails to deliver as an action film. No, the 1964 campy sci-fi movie does not feature Santa leading a commando raid on Mars, but rather teaching Martians the spirit of Christmas after they try to kidnap him. Yes, really. In fact, Santa’s kidnapping is so important various nations even mobilize their armies to try and rescue them, even if the film’s low budget means audiences don’t get a massive set piece showing a battle. That said, if you and your fellow soldiers are looking for a Christmas film to laugh at together, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a solid choice. Better yet, watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode about it. 

Lethal Weapon

Writer Shane Black loves Christmas. It’s the setting of nearly every one of his films, from Last Kiss Goodnight to The Nice Guys to even Iron Man 3. Black loves mixing Christmas with buddy comedy action even more. But Lethal Weapon is his most troop-focused film. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover)’s new partner Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a trauma-ridden special operations veteran, while the drug smuggling ring they uncover ends up being run by former soldiers from the Vietnam War using their skills for crime. There’s action, there’s comedy, there’s a final fight that happens surrounded by Christmas decorations. What’s not to like? 

L.A. Confidential

Another crime film? Another noir? Yes. And it’s a modern classic. The film follows various detectives, almost all of them recently demobilized service members who fought in World War II. The three plotlines interweave perfectly, following the veterans-turned-cops as they try to solve a brutal winter murder and how it ties into Hollywood, Mickey Cohen and the LAPD itself. L.A. Confidential sets its dark tone right at the start, in a lengthy Christmas-time scene as cops party and deal with holiday-related crime. Bud White (Russell Crowe) even rips down a Santa’s sleigh decoration while protecting a woman from an abusive husband, wishing her a “merry Christmas.” The film alone achieves a Christmas-worthy miracle of taking James Ellroy’s trademark byzantine plot lines and condensing them into a taut, coherent film. 

Three Kings

Maybe this one is a stretch, but stay with us. The title comes from the Christmas carol, quoted aloud by the less than bright Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze). It’s got refugees, the desert and even gold, but no frankincense or myrrh. Although the movie is technically set in early 1991, after Christmas (for a proper Gulf War-set Christmas scene, watch Jarhead), the story of one Green Beret and a bunch of reservists trying to steal Kuwaiti gold from Saddam Hussein is extremely entertaining. The film does a pretty good job of capturing what it’s like being an enlisted soldier, from boredom to grumpy officers and even the silly arguments between troops. More importantly, it’s about the soldiers doing what they can to help people flee oppression and find safety. And honestly, isn’t that spirit of giving the true spirit of the holidays?

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