It’s no secret that folks love to watch Santa Claus break bad. Despite being literally called “Father Christmas” in some cultures, this often rosy-cheeked symbol of generosity from childhood eventually becomes many an adult’s favorite villain: the crazed serial killer with an ax in Silent Night, Deadly Night; or the drunkard who urinates on himself at the mall in Bad Santa.
While some of those movies are better than others (namely the first Billy Bob Thornton iteration of a Yuletide lush), all of them seem to forget that, deep down, we still want to believe that Santa and the season he represents should be depicted as a force for good. Maturity comes in recognizing the world is more complex than a handful of flurries in a snow globe, but Santa need not be. Hence the ingenuity of screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s million-dollar-idea: What if Santa Claus finds himself in the middle of a Die Hard movie?
It’s apparently a concept the pair, now most famous for writing the Sonic the Hedgehog movies, came up with in high school, and it plays like it too. Not only does the resulting Violent Night feel like a throwback to ‘90s actioners where everything was a high-concept riff of “Die Hard on a… [insert location],” but it tackles the premise with an extreme amount of nostalgic, juvenile glee. But what is glee, if not just another word for the Christmas cheer that we all seek? Only now, the holiday eggnog comes with a kick. And a punch. And maybe a few impalements. Plus a definite sleigh-load of bludgeonings.
With a setup so simple that it hurts to almost belabor the point, Violent Night takes place in a nondescript New England estate for the wealthy elite on Christmas Eve. It is there that the adult children of Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo) gather to vie for the affection (and money) of their ice-cold matriarch. Some of them are sincere in the love they show for their mother, some duplicitous, but perhaps the only one who matters is little girl Trudy (Leah Brady), a young granddaughter who despite her privilege still enjoys the simple things, such as belief in Santa Claus.
That belief will come in handy after a master thief extraordinaire who simply calls himself “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) crashes this Christmas shindig with a small army of goons. They’re here to hold Gertrude’s family hostage until she gives up her secret vault stuffed with $350 million (a la Die Hard). Clearly, Scrooge has anticipated every minute detail about this night… well, everything except for the fact that they arrive at the exact same time as a world weary Santa Claus (David Harbour) is delivering presents down the hall. And when Scrooge’s men attempt to pull a gun on Père Noël, they’ll discover a new definition for Santa giving the naughty their lumps.
Violent Night is swift and eager to paint with the broadest strokes and the thinnest of archetypes in its storytelling. This is a smart choice since the first act of the movie is particularly creaky as it labors toward Santa’s first kill. While the movie actually begins by introducing Harbour’s depressed St. Nick at the bottom of a bottle—here despairing less over his life than the sad commercialism of Christmas—the characterization is so threadbare that it leaves little of an impression.
Indeed, the movie gets far better mileage in its first act by casting D’Angelo, a stalwart of Christmas classics after putting up with Chevy Chase’s antics in Christmas Vacation (1988), against Leguizamo. D’Angelo is no stranger at playing ruthless ice queens and lightens the mood when sparring with Leguizamo, who appears to be relishing the chance to throw his own spin on a Hans Gruber type.
But really this is all table setting until the moment Harbour’s Santa is called into action and is forced to stuff an electric Christmas tree topper down a baddie’s throat. He then plugs it in.
This is where director Tommy Wirkola’s maximalist instincts for horror-comedy come alive in a more muscular environment. A genre darling after directing a pair of Norwegian zombie movies in his homeland, Dead Snow and Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, Wirkola has a knack for visualizing innovative carnage on pristine snowy landscapes. The way he mixes the red and white onscreen is not dissimilar to Clark Grizwold’s enthusiasm for exterior illumination. And in Harbour’s Santa, he might’ve found a perfect muse. Violent Night is (slightly) less gruesome than the wince-inducing imagery of Dead Snow, but now working with a Hollywood budget, there is a chipper joy to the way Wirkola stages gonzo set pieces, such as when Santa picks up a sledgehammer and literally starts dishing out lumps by the dozens across the brows of naughty, naughty bank robbers.
The movie attempts to be more than the sum of its violent spectacle, however, especially by leaning into a rather wholesome rapport between Harbour’s Santa and Brady’s young Trudy, who communicate over Toys ‘R Us walkie talkies like they’re Bruce Willis and Reginald VelJohnson. Wirkola even attempts to throw in some other holiday classic influences with a sequence that might be best described as R-rated Home Alone.
However, the attempts at making this a full fledged Christmas movie feel somewhat underdeveloped, which is in keeping with Harbour’s Santa. While the Stranger Things actor has an unmistakable twinkle in his eye, and a robust physicality to boot, the film’s half-hearted attempts to suggest a true Northman origin for Father Christmas comes off as ultimately superfluous in the movie’s storytelling and larger interests. Surprisingly, the similarly themed (and far lower budgeted) Fatman from a couple years ago put a lot more effort into developing its action movie Santa into a dynamic antihero.
But Violent Night is not about the minute placements of ornaments or tinsel on its tree. It’s about the big picture, and the blinding lights of its giddy technicolor action. The result is no Christmas classic, but it’s a jolly good time that should appeal to the inner child (and jejune sense of humor) in us all.
Violent Night opens on Friday, Dec. 2.