Violent Night Doesn't Sleigh

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<I>Violent Night</i> Doesn't Sleigh

Big-studio action movies have become so unmoored from physical reality, so reliant on animated stunt doubles and flimsy CG environments, that even the most reactionary older-guy-kicking-ass programmer is guaranteed a certain earthbound appeal. Movies like the Taken trilogy and their ilk aren’t necessarily well-choreographed ballets of violence, but there’s enough convincing, lumbering weight behind a star like Liam Neeson to give them some automatic punch. And sometimes, rooting around among the stars of yesteryear for a new/old action hero, you happen upon a well-choreographed ballet of violence, like the John Wick series. It’s a testament to the overpowered nature of big-screen action heroes that Santa Claus—a magically semi-immortal being with access to the powers of flight, speed and fitting into small spaces—is now considered closer to Liam Neeson or John Wick than, say, the Green Lantern. Violent Night, an enthusiastically gimmicky action movie about an ass-kicking Santa, treats him as the ultimate embittered old man.

This Santa, played by David Harbour, does have access to some manner of magic: He’s got a bottomless sack that can hold a seemingly infinite number of gifts, he can briefly turn to a fairy-dust-like substance in order to whisk in and out of chimneys, and he doesn’t age like a normal man. But he’s susceptible to a variety of mortal perils: He may have a decent constitution, but he can still get drunk; he may have a millennium-old vicious-warrior backstory, but he can still bleed. Disillusioned with Christmas after hundreds of years on the job (a sample note asks for cash, cash, cash, cash and videogames), Santa’s mettle is tested when he stumbles into a Christmas Eve home invasion. A man calling himself Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo) leads a team of mercenaries onto the estate of the loathsome scion Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo), searching for a cache of stolen money. Gertrude’s son Jason (Alex Hassell), along with his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their sweet daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) are caught in the potential crossfire. But don’t worry: Santa Claus is coming to town, and eventually he gets his hand on a big hammer.

There’s more plot than that, unfolding with the misplaced confidence of an 80-minute premise inexplicably padding itself out to an unseemly hour-fifty. Really, the natural runtime of Violent Night is around 150 seconds, or however long it would take for a fake trailer on CollegeHumor to get a little holiday-season Facebook pass-around in 2007. The only way to mitigate the cutesiness at feature length is to make it actually kick ass—to stage some genuinely good action scraps amidst all the “funny” business. Director Tommy Wirkola, a Norwegian director who made the similarly smirky Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, makes a satisfying if ungraceful go at it. The fights between Santa and various goons are messy, protracted and, at times, extremely violent. This is as much a comic splatter picture as an action movie.

The gore gets bigger laughs than the dialogue; any time Violent Night tries to speak its outrageousness aloud, it seems awfully pleased with itself, like perfect fodder for the “Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie!” crowd. On the other hand, this is a better approximation of the Die Hard sensibility than the last couple of Die Hard sequels—and in the movie’s sole act of genuine cleverness, it forges a connection between gory exploitation movies and the bloodless, kid-pleasing violence of the Home Alone movies. The most inspired sequence finds little Trudy setting Kevin McAllister-style traps with a transfusion of actual blood, as the score does a twinkly imitation of John Williams.

The movie is so tone-deaf about actual children that it seems to have no idea how old Trudy is supposed to be; from the sound of it, she’s at least eight, but acts more like a five-year-old. Still, it’s her trust in Santa, and his determination to live up to that trust, that gives Violent Night a little extra life, far moreso than its poor man’s Bad Santa shenanigans. Violent Night is ultimately a weirdly sincere movie about the power of Christmas magic, as well as one where a Santa Claus who vengefully murders two dozen people speaks gently and honestly to a kid who wants her parents to get back together for the holidays. It’s an especially good moment for Harbour, who thankfully curbs some of the bluster he’s been indulging over on Stranger Things. Violent Night isn’t a great action movie, or even a very good one, but George Costanza’s old assessment of Home Alone rings true: “The old man got to me!”

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Writer: Pat Casey, Josh Miller
Starring: David Harbour, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Leah Brady, John Leguizamo, Beverly D’Angelo, Edi Patterson, Cam Gigandet
Release Date: December 2, 2022

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.