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The concept of a bad Christmas movie isn’t new, but “Violent Night” manages to deliver the goods by combining “Die Hard” and “Rambo”-style action with a healthy dose of cheesy ho-ho-hokum. In a film that offers the kind of communal experience that should bring much-needed cheer to audiences, David Harbour plays a particularly irritable, butt-kicking Santa.
Harbour’s Santa Claus is presented boozing it up in a London tavern between deliveries, evidently having lost his appetite for his appointed rounds. That bleak outlook explains why he takes a break that includes sipping (OK, stealing) some very costly brandy while visiting a big home in Connecticut, just before an elite team of armed burglars storms in and kidnaps the family.
The family consists of two estranged parents (Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder) and their daughter (Leah Brady), who is still young enough to believe in Santa and boasts about having just seen “Home Alone” for the first time. Initially compelled to defend himself, Santa finds himself in an increasingly pitched and violent war against the bad guys, led by a Christmas-hating mastermind known only as Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo, who matches Harbour’s hammy zeal).
The film was energetically assembled by Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola from a script by Pat Casey and Josh Miller, and it comes from producers affiliated with, among other things, the “John Wick” and “Deadpool” series. Still, juggling over-the-top violence, stupid comedy, and (in this case) Hallmark-style meaning-of-Christmas material is a hard challenge, and while the setting is fairly claustrophobic, “Violent Night” mostly handles it
Despite being enhanced by “Stranger Things,” Harbour’s gruff anti-hero in “Black Widow” is the closest model for his portrayal here. Santa may have a few magical benefits, most of which he claims he doesn’t completely comprehend, but he’s far from invincible, certainly not enough to keep his beard from becoming bloodied.
The tonal switches can be abrupt, and trimming a few minutes of cinematic fat wouldn’t have helped. Perhaps most importantly, the film feels tuned to a theatrical experience in a way that most of the prestige pictures released during this year-end window do not, prompting plenty of oohs, moans, and laughing.
That may not be the recipe for a fun-for-the-whole-family holiday staple, but to its credit, those watching “Violent Night” should rarely be silent for long.
“Violent Night” hits theaters in the United States on December 2. It has a R rating.
Violent Night isn’t the first film to tell an R-rated Santa Claus story, but it’s one of the best if the thought of jolly old St. Nick participating in some old-school violence appeals to you. Violent Night stars Stranger Things actor David Harbour as the bearded, gift-giving avatar of Christmas, directed by Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) from a scenario by Sonic the Hedgehog writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller. Santa, disillusioned with the state of the world and slipping headlong into drunkenness, has his chaotic Christmas routine disrupted when a violent band of robbers targets a mansion he’s visiting during his holiday rounds.
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You had better watch out (no, seriously), Santa mad Jingle brawl.
Santa is forced to slice, stab, and smash his way through a horde of mercenaries on his naughty list in order to save not only the girl, but also Christmas present and future. Violent Night manages to maintain a creative, engaging mix between humor and hard-hitting action throughout its well-paced running duration of less than two hours, despite a strange premise that could have easily been overplayed or underexecuted.
While John Leguizamo screams at David Harbous, he is dressed as Santa Claus and tied up with Christmas lights.
Subtlety isn’t the goal of Violent Night, which, like many of Wirkola’s films, wears its influences on its woolly, red-and-white sleeve.