Casting David Harbour as a kick-ass Santa is a gift, but this festive action-comedy pilfers too many of its parts from other, better films.
November 30, 2022
When it comes to originality, place Violent Night on cinema's naughty list: Die Hard meets Home Alone meets Bad Santa meets The Christmas Chronicles in this grab-bag action-comedy, meets Stranger Things favourite David Harbour donning the red suit (leather here, still fur-trimmed) and doing a John Wick impression. The film's beer-swigging, sledgehammer-swinging version of Saint Nick has a magic sack that contains the right presents for the right person each time he reaches into it, and screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller must've felt that way themselves while piecing together their script. Pilfering from the festive canon, and from celluloid history in general, happens heartily and often in this Yuletide effort. Co-scribes on Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel, the pair are clearly experienced in the movie version of regifting. And while they haven't solely wrapped up lumps of coal in their latest effort, Violent Night's true presents are few and far between.
The main gift, in the gruff-but-charming mode that's worked such a treat on Stranger Things and in Black Widow, is Harbour. It's easy to see how Violent Night's formula — not to mention its raiding of the Christmas and action genres for parts — got the tick of approval with his casting. He's visibly having a blast, too, from the moment his version of Santa is introduced downing drinks in a British bar, bellyaching about the lack of festive spirit in kids today, thinking about packing it all in and then spewing actual vomit to go with his apathy (and urine) from the side of his midair sleigh. Whenever Harbour isn't in the frame, which occurs more often than it should, Violent Night is a far worse picture. When you're shopping for the season, you have to commit to your present purchases, but this film can't always decide if it wants to be salty or sweet.
Harbour's Kris Kringle: saltier than a tub of beer nuts. Still, after his sloshed pub stint, he keeps grumpily doing his job, because Christmas Eve isn't really the time to quit. Then, at the Lightstone abode, aka "the most secure private residence in the country" as viewers are told, more booze and a massage chair calls him — and that butt-vibrating rest sees him unwittingly caught up in an attack on the property. As wealthy matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D'Angelo, Shooter) lords over her adult children and their families, mercenaries storm in with their sights set on the mansion's vault. What the self-described Scrooge (John Leguizamo, The Menu) and his interchangeable colleagues aren't counting on, of course, is a formidable Father Christmas skulking around. He's trying to get away more than initially save the day, but he'll happily dispense season's beatings to do both.
Just as the John Wick films, then Atomic Blonde, then Nobody all knew — Bullet Train director David Leitch has either helmed or produced them all, doing the latter with Violent Night — there's visual poetry and visceral thrills to be found when someone super-competent at holding their own dispenses with nefarious foes. That's the case even when they're battling scenery-chewing, "bah humbug"!-spouting, Hans Gruber-wannabe antagonists like Scrooge, plus his flimsier henchmen. As that's happening, and frequently, Violent Night ticks off many a movie's wishlist, but that's only part of the premise here. Those Lightstone offspring include Jason (Alex Hassell, Cowboy Bebop), who has his ex Linda (Alexis Louder, The Terminal List) and seven-year-old daughter Trudy (Leah Brady, The Umbrella Academy) in tow, and wants this Christmas jaunt to be a permanent reunion. That's a layer of drama Violent Night doesn't need, adding nothing but filler, just like Jason's sister Alva's (Edi Patterson, The Righteous Gemstones) Succession-esque clamouring for the family company.
There's usually never a bad time to eat the rich, but Violent Night's efforts are a half-chomp at best — the gun-toting crew of intruders trying to rip off millions of dollars are always the real bad guys, after all. Casey and Miller haven't penned a movie with much in the way of depth, and attempting to pretend otherwise proves as clunky as it sounds. The saccharine side that Trudy's presence brings is similarly just a way to take up time; Bad Santa's bad Santa has a pint-sized offsider, which means this flick's does as well, apparently. Trudy has also just watched Home Alone and screams about it (yes, the nods are that blatant). The sizeable scene that puts her fandom to good use, nails, bowling balls, sabotaged ladder rungs and all, is among Violent Night's most entertaining, though. The film knows how to make its familiar parts gleam when it wants to, but that isn't often enough.
Director Tommy Wirkola must've been a simple hire for the job, however, thanks to Dead Snow and its sequel, plus Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. The filmmaker has stuffed his stocking with high-concept this-meets-that flicks, the exact type of movie that Violent Night is from go to whoa to ho-ho-ho. Unsurprisingly, he fares best when his picture is letting loose and living up to its enticing idea, complete with kinetic fight choreography, blood and gory deaths, and everything from icicles to lit-up star tree-toppers used as weapons. In pure action terms, there's an around-the-world sleigh ride's worth of mileage in a literally killer Santa Claus turning slasher not in a horror-flick fashion (despite its many borrowings from elsewhere, this isn't a Silent Night Deadly Night do-over), but to play hero.
Comedy isn't Wirkola's strength, or the feature's — see: the laboured attempts at laughs around Alva's actor spouse Morgan (Cam Gigandet, Without Remorse) and aspiring-influencer son Bert (Alexander Elliot, The Hardy Boys) — which is why all those nods to Gremlins, The Ref, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and more land with the hollow thud of an empty box. Holiday schmaltz and reminders that there's more to the festive season than material aren't highlights either, and Casey and Miller haven't stretched themselves in trying to come up with either amusing or heartfelt dialogue. Even with a The Northman-style backstory part of Violent Night's take on the jolly man, that leaves Harbour with a heap of heavy lifting in the film's first two thirds. He's up to the task — again, it's an ace premise with ace lead casting — but he's never walking audiences through an ultra-violent Christmas movie wonderland.
Concrete Playground Trips
Book unique getaways and adventures dreamed up by our editors