[Watch our video review of ‘Violent Night’ above or read it below.]
Violent Night is a blood-soaked Christmas action-comedy boasting Stranger Things actor David Harbour as Santa Claus. The film is directed by Tommy Wirkola, who has plenty of experience with bloody dark comedies, having directed Dead Snow, Dead Snow 2, and The Trip, among other titles.
For this writer, the idea of seeing Harbour playing an ass-kicking Santa in an ultra-violent, knowingly silly, weirdly sweet Christmas movie sounds like the perfect film to check out during the holiday season while chugging back some highly toxic eggnog. So, the wrapping paper here looked mighty enticing. Now that I’ve opened it, is Violent Night the gift I was hoping for? I’d say, partly. And whether or not it’s what you’re looking for… could come down to just what your expectations are – and how high they are. While mine may have been a tad high for what was eventually on offer, I did have some fun with this one.
It’s an amusing and very simple plot. Baddies turn up at the house of a rich family – the members of which, of course, have a number of issues – in the hopes of robbing what’s in their safe. Unfortunately for these home invaders, they’re on the naughty list. And wouldn’t you know it: Santa happens to be here, at this very time, delivering gifts to a little girl who’s on his nice list, young Trudy Lightstone (played by Leah Brady). Now, this particular Santa isn’t exactly Merry. In fact, he’s a grumpy alcoholic, and having grown cynical with the world over the years, he’s just about had it with his Christmas duties. But Santa still has a bit of heart left, so when he stumbles upon this armed robbery that’s put little Trudy in danger, well… Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.
A bloody action-comedy and a family-oriented Christmas movie collide in this very self-aware and fairly entertaining mash-up. It really does feel like a hybrid of two clear-cut films, with plenty of tropes on display from two widely different genres. The benefit of the many genre and narrative cliches is that you can subvert expectations of where things are going or how tropes will be handled. Plus, you can have your fair share of wink-wink, nudge-nudge moments with a knowing audience.
And while Violent Night does manage to deliver some fun while navigating these well-trodden roads, they’re mostly within certain moments – a cheesily amusing one liner here, a gloriously over-the-top kill there. The overall plot and the way this contained story unfolds feels surprisingly simplistic for what could have been. Essentially, there’s really not much in store in the way of surprise. Considering the wild concept that’s serving as the playground, this could have been packed with them. Instead, Violent Night remains about formula, whether it be ingredients of the Die Hard-style action flick or that “meaning of Christmas” style family movie. I should mention that there are certain… fantasy elements, which I won’t spoil, but they’re small tidbits scattered about the place and don’t provide much apart from a laugh or two.
So, that puts a good amount of responsibility on the film’s bits: the quips and the gags, the action sequences and the kills. It’s a mixed sack in both areas. Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller, perhaps best known for writing both Sonic the Hedgehog films, have written in a slew of Christmas-related jokes – some are amusing, and some are firmly from the dad joke department – and they appear to be having the most fun when drawing up their bad guys. There are also some nice nods to past Christmas movies – Home Alone, in particular, is the inspiration for one of the film’s standout sequences. Nails and bowling balls. Ouch. The dialogue overall certainly isn’t anything special, but there’s a self-aware silliness to it that sits firmly within the film’s confident tone. So, it suits, I suppose.
On the action side of things, Violent Night is adequate, but unremarkable. That being said, undemanding genre fiends should get their fix with a few of the giddily brutal sequences. This one scene with Santa laying waste to mercenaries with a big ol’ hammer is really enjoyable for its sheer brutality. The action choreography is relatively standard fare, although you can actually see clear manoeuvring and who’s fighting who, so I suppose that makes the fights better than many action films these days. There is some nice creativity when it comes to incorporating everyday objects and, especially, Christmas ornaments into the fights. I’ll also say that in a film like this, we want to see some creatively gnarly kills, and on that front Violent Night delivers. These baddies are offed in a variety of brutal ways that, ultimately, elevates the action. One especially memorable death towards the end even drew applause at my screening.
It does, however, take a while for this action to really get going. The family dynamic that the script seems determined to focus on simply isn’t as engaging as it should be. The rich, bitter matriarch, her irritating daughter, the obnoxious grandson; annoying characters that I thought didn’t really provide the laughs and weren’t interesting enough to hang out with. I’m not sure how long we were hanging with these people, but it felt too long, especially when you want to see Santa kicking ass.
Speaking of Santa, great casting here. David Harbour is fantastic as this Father Christmas you really want having your back. The actor dials into that gruff, tired badass with a heart of gold that he’s delivered in certain ways as Jim Hopper in Stranger Things, and of course he’s more than convincing as a one-man army in some very physical sequences. Importantly, Harbour rides the film’s tone perfectly, going all in when it calls for it, but constantly carrying an almost sly wink as he goes from cold-blooded murder to yelling at his magical reindeer for poop.
The reliable John Leguizamo is also fun to have as the film’s bad guy. I just wish he had a little more to do. He spends way too much time with that family.
Violent Night isn’t quite the creative, gut-bustingly hilarious, amazingly choreographed action fest it had the potential to be, but it is, nevertheless, a decent time. I had some laughs, winced more than a few times at the enjoyable savagery, and hey, it’s David freakin’ Harbour, as Santa Claus, and he kicks ass.