Have you ever torn open the wrapping on a promising Christmas gift, only to find once you’ve taken it out and assembled its pieces that it’s not really what you’d hoped for at all? That it’s shoddily made, or not quite what it claimed to be, or simply less fun than you’d expected?
Tommy Wirkola’s Violent Night is, blessedly, not that gift. It’s one that delivers exactly what it promises on the box. It does not necessarily deliver much more than it promises on the box, but then it doesn’t need to. For those to whom the idea of a home-invasion comedy-thriller starring David Harbor as a sledgehammer-wielding Kris Kringle holds self-evident appeal, this one seems destined to become an alt-holiday classic.
The Bottom Line
A blood-soaked holiday charmer.
Release date: Friday, Dec. 2
Cast: David Harbour, John Leguizamo, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Leah Brady, Beverly D’Angelo, Eddie Patterson, Cam Gigandet
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Cast: Pat Casey, Josh Miller
Rated R, 1 hour 41 minutes
Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s script announces its gleefully tasteless brand of humor right away. The first time we meet this version of Santa, he’s slumped over a bar in Bristol, blearily complaining about his job and decrying how materialistic kids have become these days. Still, once he finally gets off the barstool and up onto the roof, the sight of him soaring away with his reindeer makes for a magical moment for the bartender who happens to witness the whole thing … until he barfs over the slide of his sleigh, and all over her face. This is the kind of Christmas story we’re in for, and this is Violent Night letting you know you can take it or leave it.
From there, Santa goes about his rounds with something less than the bare minimum effort, stewing with resentment even as he stuffs his face with the cookies left for him by all the world’s good kids. But the night takes an unexpected turn with his stop by the Lightstone compound, home to a ruthless businesswoman (Beverly D’Angelo) whose adult children are prone to Succession-esque squabbles for her favor. (Or perhaps that should be The Righteous Gemstones-esque, given the daughter is a Judy Gemstone type played by Judy Gemstone herself, Edi Patterson; (Alex Hassell plays the son.)
The real threat this Christmas Eve, however, is one coming from outside the clan: A group of armed mercenaries has taken hostage the whole family, which includes an eye-wateringly obnoxious influencer (Alexander Elliott) already battling sexual harassment lawsuits at the ripe old age of 13 — but also Trudy (Leah Brady), a kindly and clever 7-year-old who’s earned a place on Santa’s “nice” list.
And so Santa, unable to turn away from Trudy’s whispered pleas for help, finds himself battling his way solo through a building crawling with baddies. Meanwhile, Trudy, who managed to sneak away to the attic, sets about improvising traps to protect herself. In other words, Violent Night becomes a riff on both Die Hard and Home Alone, but taken to their hard-R logical extremes under Wirkola’s over-the-top gory direction. Santa doesn’t dispatch his enemies swiftly or cleanly but smashes their faces with ornaments and chops off their heads with ice skates, in brutal fistfights choreographed by Jonathan “Jojo” Eusebio (John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum); Trudy takes Kevin McAllister’s already painful-looking booby traps and turns them into full-on blood-soaked affairs.
Violent Night does show more restraint on the narrative front, clocking in at a relatively trim 101 minutes. There’s a reason this Santa seems so battle-ready, and a reason the lead villain (“Mr. Scrooge,” played by John Leguizamo) seems to have it out for the holiday. But the movie knows we’re not really here to get bogged down in the weeds of Scrooge’s psychology or new Santa lore, and so it offers just enough detail to add some shading to these characters as they try to beat each other to a pulp. Nor does it bother explaining the magic that makes Santa who he is; as Santa himself wearily explains to one befuddled human adult after another, he doesn’t really know how his Christmas magic works either, only that it does.
Yet so powerful is this mysterious Yuletide spirit that its spell ultimately reaches Violent Night itself. Santa may be a bitterly self-loathing man who never looks more alive than when he’s stabbing a dude’s eye with a candy cane, but Harbor also brings a touching sincerity to his interactions with Trudy. And in between the graphic violence and twisted jokes, the film actually manages to serve up all the hallmarks of a classic Christmas movie: the reminder that the day is about more than material gifts, the redemptive power of a child’s belief in Santa, the importance of family togetherness in a greedy and selfish world.
The difference is that in this movie, when a little girl’s face lights up to see one of Santa’s signature accoutrements, its not his sack of toys or his reindeer she’s delighted by, but a sledgehammer he’s affectionately named Skullcrusher. And that the line “Santa Claus is coming to town” is uttered not as a cry of celebration, but in a growl as a hilarious threat.
To call Violent Night heartwarming might be a bridge too far. This is, after all, still a film that seems to have been mostly built around the question of “How many Christmas-themed props can we turn into weapons?” (The answer: most of them, apparently! Try very hard not to think about that the next time some eggnog-drunk relative is trying your last nerve over the last slice of glazed ham.) But for those who prefer their gingerbread soaked in booze and their tinsel splattered with gore, Violent Night might be exactly what the season calls for.
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