The Naughty List: Five Christmas Crime Movies

Not everyone is nice on Christmas. There are plenty of Christmas movies with love, kindness, family, and charity, but sometimes you’re more in the mood to party with Scrooge before his big reform. For those instances, here are five lumps of coal for the cinematic stocking: Five Christmas Crime Movies.

You’ll notice I didn’t say “Top 5;” that’s because, although I like-to-love all these films, they aren’t necessarily my favorites. I’m going for things people may not have seen or even heard of, or movies I feel are underappreciated or were unjustly panned upon release, which make for better recommendations. No Shane Black, in other words, though you can read my thoughts on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon if you’re interested. All five are listed in chronological order.

Check out The Nice List.

Honorable Mention: Bad Santa (2003)

“Let me give you some news: I’m not Santa Claus, alright? Take a look at me. Do I look like Santa Claus? In fact, I’m living fucking proof that there’s not a Santa Claus.”

I love Bad Santa at least as much as all of these movies but left it off because it’s so well-known. Everybody loves Bad Santa; the first choice in feel-bad Christmas cinema became an instant classic when it debuted in 2003. Billy Bob Thornton was already a well-respected actor, but he became a legend as Willie T. Soke, a safecracker who gets a job as a mall Santa every Christmas and robs the place blind on Christmas Eve once all the shopping is done. Tony Cox is also fantastic as Marcus, Willie’s thieving partner who acts as his elf. Lauren Graham as a bartender with a Santa fetish, Bernie Mac as the mall security chief who suspects Willie and Marcus are up to no good, and the late and dearly missed John Ritter as the nervous mall manager all complement the hilarious crime story. But the heart of the film is Brett Kelly’s Thurman Merman, an awkward but innocent kid who befriends Willie and, much as he tries to fight it, gives him a taste of the Christmas Spirit. It’s beloved for a reason, and if you haven’t checked it out, I’d suggest putting it at the top of your Christmas watch list.

Go (1999)

“It’s called Mary X-Mas; Mary, like a chick. Like her name is Mary, not like you marry her, you fucking moron.”

Ronna (Sarah Polley), a supermarket cashier in Los Angeles, gets involved in the drug trade to keep from getting evicted but finds herself in over her head – or does she? Simon (Desmond Askew), Ronna’s co-worker, heads to Las Vegas with three friends and runs afoul of local gangsters at a strip club. Adam and Zack (Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr), a couple of TV heartthrobs, are working undercover for the cops after getting busted with drugs, but their consciences weigh on them as they try to set up an otherwise innocent girl. All of these stories are connected, leading the main characters into an underworld of drugs, sex, violence, and a good amount of laughs at Christmastime.

Go is one of the better Pulp Fiction knock-offs to come about in the 90s, obviously cribbing from Quentin Tarantino’s landmark crime epic while forging its own identity with Doug Liman at the helm. What separates it from Pulp is that, while the characters are lowlifes, they aren’t violent (with a couple of exceptions). Like Pulp, they all have arcs, which are set up by Katie Holmes’ opening narration about how Christmas presents can be surprising once they’re unwrapped. Ronna, for example, has no idea what she’s doing when she decides to attempt a drug deal, but as she dips her toes into the business, she finds she may be better at it than she thought. Simon, on the other hand, is more experienced at it but is also a complete idiot who screws up everything he touches. And the recurring use of the word “Go” has a different meaning in every story. That the leads are played by actors who were supposed to be stars but never quite made it (with the exception of eventual Raylan Givens Timothy Olyphant, who steals the movie as drug dealer Todd Gaines) adds to the atmosphere of desperation and dashed dreams. The elements of Christmas cheer throughout do the same; Christmas is just out of reach for these lost souls.

Reindeer Games (2000)

“You’re gonna be spending Christmas with the birthday boy himself!”

Cellmates Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) and Nick Cassidy (James Frain) are about to finish their prison terms just in time for Christmas. While Rudy is headed home to his parents’ house, Nick has a sexy pen-pal waiting for him in Ashley (Charlize Theron). But when Nick is stabbed to death in a riot, Rudy sees Ashley standing alone in the snow and decides to pretend he’s Nick to give her – and himself – a Merry Christmas. And it goes great… until they’re kidnapped by Ashley’s psychotic brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) and his henchmen. See, Nick used to be a security guard at an Indian casino, and Gabriel wants to use his insider info to rob the joint on Christmas Eve. Can Rudy fake his way to survival? And whose side is Ashley really on?

If it sounds like I gave too much away, understand this: that’s not even the first thirty minutes of Reindeer Games, and there are more twists and turns than a snake doing yoga. This movie is considered a low point in Ben Affleck’s career, and I’ve never understood why. It’s a fun, fast-paced (especially for a two-hour movie), sexy crime thriller that keeps you guessing the whole time. Affleck’s regular-guy persona fits Rudy perfectly, allowing us to put ourselves in his place rather than judge him too harshly, because looking at Charlize Theron standing angelically in the snow, well… who among us wouldn’t? Speaking of Theron, she’s outstanding as the woman whom Rudy can’t decide is the good girl victim or the femme fatale who suckered him, and you’ll go back and forth along with him. And Sinise and his crew – made up of Danny Trejo, Clarence Williams III, and Donal Logue – are scary in their unpredictability, with Sinise always looking like he’s two seconds away from snapping. I don’t want to say too much, but the final act has a perfect Christmas motif that leads to an excellent line from Dennis Farina, who plays the casino manager. If you like crime films, this one is as comforting as hot chocolate and pecan pie.

The Ice Harvest (2005)

“Only morons are nice at Christmas.”

On Christmas Eve, mobbed-up lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) steals over $2 million from the gangster who runs Kansas. What follows is an odyssey of hopelessness and increasing danger as Charlie navigates the strip clubs and gin joins of Wichita, contending with a host of characters who seem determined to get him killed: Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), his controlling partner-in-crime; Pete (Oliver Platt), his drunken embarrassment of a best friend; Roy Gelles (Mike Starr), a mob enforcer hunting him and Vic; and Renata (Connie Nielsen), the woman he loves who could be his… for a price.

The Ice Harvest got a raw deal, in part because it was marketed wrong. Thanks to the trailers, people were expecting a spiritual sequel to Bad Santa, a dark Christmas comedy led by Billy Bob Thornton and directed by the great Harold Ramis. But The Ice Harvest is actually a noir (or neo-noir, if you want to split hairs) crime story with some funny moments. And Billy Bob is not the co-lead with John Cusack; he’s one of many side characters who complicate Charlie’s journey through a Christmas Eve that seems determined to ensure he’ll never make it to morning. But it’s Charlie’s own fault; he gives a terrific speech about the futility of regret, but his predicament is a bed of his own making. He could be living an imperfect but comfortable life, but he decides to throw in with a dangerous man and rob an even more dangerous man, all to buy the affection of a woman who will never love him. The atmosphere is pure noir, with a steady rain washing away the snow just in time for Christmas, much as Charlie is washing away the life he has with his ill-advised scheme. Cusack is great, utilizing his ability to make you like a bad person (see also: High Fidelity; it’s too bad he can’t translate this skill to real life). The supporting cast is just as good, especially Billy Bob as the guy everyone but Charlie can see is up to something, Oliver Platt as a man who betrayed his best friend and destroyed his life in the process, and Connie Nielsen as the perfect embodiment of the femme fatale. And wait till you see who plays mob boss Bill Guerrard.

In Bruges (2008)

“Purgatory. Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham.”

Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), two Irish gangsters working in London, are sent to Bruges at Christmastime to lay low after a hit. While Ken enjoys the history, architecture, and peaceful atmosphere of the quiet Belgian town, Ray is in hell, bored to tears and disinterested in the fun everyone else seems to be having. But is it Bruges that’s getting him down, or did something go wrong on that London job? And why did their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), send them to Bruges? Are they hiding out or preparing for another hit?

In terms of imagery, Christmas is in the background for most of In Bruges, but thematically, it’s front and center. In Bruges is about atonement, with the Belgian city acting as purgatory for Ray, and possibly for Ken as well. Every scene, seemingly every line of dialogue, is relevant, asking difficult moral questions and, wisely, leaving it for the viewer to decide the answers. In the final act, the Christmas setting becomes more prevalent, with the lights and revelry contrasting with demonic imagery; heaven and hell are at war for the souls of these criminals, and they’re not sure which side they deserve more. That’s as much as I can say while remaining vague, and I wouldn’t dream of giving away this film’s secrets, which it deals out methodically throughout a brilliant, tightly written script. But it’s not dour, despite some rather intense and, at times, disturbing subject matter; In Bruges is also very funny, with a wicked, tactless streak to the humor that contrasts with the morality play at its heart. The performances, particularly the main three, are fantastic, always eminently human and relatable, even when they’re outlandish. But maybe best of all is the beer; watching these guys down various glasses of various Belgian brews makes one long for a pint of something undeniably delicious at Christmas.

Wild Card (2015)

“You’re not supposed to like Vegas. It’s just this creeping virus that people catch sometimes.”

Nick Wild (Jason Statham), a former Special Forces operative who works as a security consultant in Las Vegas, is desperate to escape the hell Sin City has become for him. He estimates he needs $500,000 to secure five years of freedom, but he can never seem to hold onto money. As Christmas approaches, Nick takes a trip through the Vegas underworld that sees him protecting a young tech millionaire (Michael Angarano), avenging a traumatized escort (Dominik García-Lorido), and tangling with the arrogant, sadistic son of an East Coast Mafia boss (Milo Ventimiglia). Can Nick escape Las Vegas alive, or is he doomed to die there – or, worse yet, to live there forever?

I’ve written about Wild Card before as it relates to Jason Statham’s oeuvre, but how does it work as a Christmas movie? It’s a downbeat one for much of its runtime, but then, so is It’s a Wonderful Life, and like that classic film, this is about a man constantly giving of himself and remaining in the last place he wants to be as a result. Wild Card is somewhat darker, though, because Nick navigates a seedier part of a seedier town than George Bailey did, and his hopelessness is seen not merely as the consequence of altruism but as a form of self-destruction, with Vegas the hell of his own making. But, again like George Bailey, he’s got a host of people he’s helped over the years aching to return the favor… if he’ll let them. The Christmas songs are suitably downbeat as well, until the inevitable turn later in the movie, with tunes like “Blue Christmas” and “Please Come Home for Christmas” segueing into the smile-inducing “White Christmas” as Statham kicks the shit out of a casino full of Mafia enforcers. Also a lot of fun are the many recognizable actors appearing in small roles, like Sofia Vergara, Jason Alexander, Hope Davis, Anne Heche, and, best of all, Stanley Tucci as a Vegas mob boss known only as “Baby.” If Vegas is hell, Baby is the Devil who rules it, with good humor masking his seeming omnipotence. Wild Card is a quick, fun, grimy, seemingly nihilistic but ultimately hopeful and uplifting Christmas crime story.


We all love being holly and jolly, but it doesn’t hurt to flirt with the naughty list at Christmastime. Just measure it with enough good cheer to keep yourself in Santa’s good graces. And if you should fall short, remember, Sump’n Claus has your back:

Merry Christmas!

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