As we tend to do every year during the winter holiday season, many of us consume and spend on multiple fronts – imbibing and eating during family gatherings, purchasing or making gifts to exchange, and hopefully, spending precious time with friends and loved ones to celebrate the season and reflect on the past year. For many, the season also places special attention on watching holiday-themed films and television. Among film watchers, action movie enthusiasts have a special question to consider during the festivities: how many violent, Christmas-themed cinematic wrecks can we squeeze into our respective watchlists? For a 1980s holiday action romp that’s less polished than either LETHAL WEAPON (1987) or DIE HARD (1988), but definitely more obscure and shorter than either of them, we point our jingling bells in the direction of 1987’s COLD STEEL, directed by Dorothy Ann Puzo.
Many holiday work parties revolve around small talk and lukewarm appetizers. If you’re lucky, there are free drinks. The Los Angeles Police Department’s holiday party involves cops pairing up to fetch an armed explosive from a random location in the city and racing through the streets like maniacs to get it back to HQ in time for the disarming. In this case, HQ is just the cops’ favorite local dive-bar, and the “explosive” turns out to be a bottle of scotch. The important part is that Johnny Modine (Brad Davis) and his partner, Cookie (Jay Acovone) got the package back to the party in time, eliciting the cheers of their comrades in arms. The bar roars with laughter and the drinks flow like wine.
John ducks out of the raucous party early to visit his folks for Christmas Eve dinner. When his loving mother (Anne Haney) greets him at the door, he showers her with an armful of gifts before a warm embrace. The only figure missing from the gathering is his father, Sam (William Lanteau), currently closing up his jewelry shop for the holidays so he can race home for supper with his wife and only son.
Fate ignores the schedule and has different plans for the evening. A sharp-dressed young British guy named Mick (Adam Ant) shows his face in the glass shop door as Sam is closing up. He appeals to the old man’s sense of romance and holiday spirit, claiming he wants to pick out an engagement ring for a Christmas Eve proposal to his sweetheart. Sam reluctantly lets him in for a quick browse, but it turns out that Mick didn’t come alone – along for the shopping trip are Rashid (Sy Richardson) and Isaac (Jonathan Banks) and they brought nothing but bad intentions (if you don’t count the weapons). In a back room, Isaac, nicknamed “Iceman,” postures and taunts his target while speaking out of an artificial voice box. He then removes his fashionable scarf to reveal the evidence of what appears to be a tracheotomy, before slashing and stabbing Sam to death.
The phone rings at the Modine household, and the news would be stark and cruel no matter the season. After consoling his mother, John dashes to the crime scene. Amidst police tape, an ambulance, and a throng of busy cops, Cookie is there to share the grisly details with his partner: there was no sign of an escape vehicle, and the assailants left on foot. Any other hard evidence is scant. Later that evening, John sits quietly in front of an unlit tree in his parents’ darkened family room, plotting his next move.
He takes little time to grieve the enormity of the loss. He turns up at the police station in a matter of days, eager to hit the streets with Cookie to knock heads and shake trees to see what comes loose. In such a charged emotional state, however, John shows himself to be a violent liability to the department, and his superiors suspend him. Without official police business to steer his time and direct his energy, he begins a downward spiral of day-drinking at his local. There’s a silver lining though, because the bar serves as the unlikely setting for a chance encounter with Kathy (Sharon Stone), a mysterious and gorgeous interior decorator from out-of-town. Even more questionable than her immediate attraction to a drunk and grief-stricken (albeit ruggedly handsome) stranger is her agreeing to his offer to drunk-drive her home after six shots of whiskey without any hesitation (“I guess I can trust you. You’re a cop, right?”)
At their secretive lair, Isaac and Mick plan their next robbery while listening to rock radio and getting high. While the latter enjoys a line of cocaine to get into character, Isaac is a high-functioning addict who mainlines meth on the regular. (Sy is absent from the hangout, presumably attending his monthly book club discussion). After the gang burglarizes an arms shop for high-powered weaponry and then explodes a cop car that night, their long-term objective comes into sharp relief: Isaac wants to fully ensnare John Modine over some ambiguous, unfinished business and take slow and bloody revenge.
There are drug deals in a store for pet fish and aquariums, violent arrests, deception, Adam Ant exclaiming “I feel bigger with a trigger!”, an expository flashback, and a disturbing scene where John takes Kathy on a romantic date to a Japanese restaurant, and she reveals that she hates sushi. All of these events lead up to a flaming hot climax at the future site of another L.A. police station, still under construction and inexplicably decorated with Christmas lights.
Like a holiday buffet at the home of a distant relative that one decides to attend on a last-minute whim, I went into this film with zero expectations. Ultimately, I was left contented and slightly disgusted, having stuffed myself with riveting car chases, massive explosions, a crazed villain, and in the grand 1980s action movie tradition, a scene with totally random mannequin parts in the background. For my money, COLD STEEL is a rough but seasonally appropriate 1980s action movie gem.
Perhaps the most remarkable production detail related to the film is that Dorothy Ann Puzo – daughter of author Mario Puzo – was a first-time director who created a compelling final product that featured steady performances from a veteran cast of recognizable actors, a solid story, and terrific stunt work … and then never again worked as a director, for reasons unknown. This film is evidence of a burgeoning talent, so we’re left to question what may have been if her career choices had been different and her trajectory had continued.
Puzo’s choices as a director put just about everyone in positions to contribute, succeed, and look good doing so. Brad Davis and Jay Acovone have a nice, easygoing chemistry as police partners, and Sharon Stone is terrific and charismatic even with somewhat underwritten material (is hatred of sushi a character trait? I’m still not sure). Anthony LaPaglia plays an agitated druggie looking to score in his film debut. Even while speaking in a robotic Doctor Doom voice right out of the 1981 SPIDER-MAN animated series, Isaac the “Iceman” — as portrayed by future BREAKING BAD performer Jonathan Banks — is a menacing character I enjoyed watching and enjoyed loathing. The story was hatched by Puzo, veteran film producer Lisa Hansen, and Michael Sonye, who wrote the screenplay for this film plus horror gems BLOOD DINER and FROZEN SCREAM. As the film’s stunt coordinator and second unit director, Hollywood veteran John Stewart (director of ACTION U.S.A. and CARTEL) deploys his trusty toolkit of ramped cars, human torches, and a bevy of exploding stuff to maximum effect. The action scenes really help to give the film a sense of propulsion to keep viewers engaged to the very end.
Many readers, perhaps all five of you, will shrug and say, “so what?” Where’s the beef? Where’s the Christmas Eve turkey? Where’s the holiday honey-glazed ham with optional pineapple rings? At the end of the day, how festive is this movie, really?
Far from being a textbook example of immersive Christmas action cinema, it approximates the seasonal experience better than most, I might argue. It starts with cheerful fun, gift-giving, and a boisterous, boozy crowd playing a game of merriment. Once the party is over, the bright lights and decorative scenery give way to a ruined dinner and a truly bad (i.e., tragic) case of the holiday blues that’s hard to shake. At the end of the film, the characters are run ragged by the conflict in their lives, but a glimmer of festive light – strung on a freight elevator, no less – serves to remind them of the simple reasons for the season: being together in comfort, and watching the flames dance from an open, crackling fire.