Everywhere I’ve gone this holiday weekend, from work to Christmas parties to friends online, there’s one film I’ve been asked about more than any other: Violent Night. Seriously. More than any Oscar contender or blockbuster or niche indie film, everyone wants to know if I’ve seen and what I thought about “Die Hard But Actually A Christmas Movie.”
I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s the appeal of David Harbour. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the notion “Santa Kills People” (even though Mel Gibson did so two years ago). Who can say? But to any readers out there wondering “What is Violent Night? Is it worth my time?” I can tell you this: Violent Night is whatever film you think it will be.
After a thousand years on the job, Santa Claus (David Harbour) has reached his breaking point. With greed at an all-time high, and 90% of the kids in the world – even the nice ones – asking for cash or video games, the disillusioned gift-giver spends most of his time drinking in his sleigh and berating his reindeer. In fact, there’s only one child that gives him hope in this crazy, crazy world: Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady), the good-hearted youngest of the greedy Lightstone family, a group of billionaire war profiteers led by matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo).
However, when delivering presents to Trudy (and raiding the family’s stocked liquor cabinet for good measure), Santa soon finds himself trapped when a group of super-thieves, led by the brutal, ruthless, Christmas-hating Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo) holds the family hostage while stealing $300 million from the family vault. In order to both survive the night and save the last remnants of Christmas cheer in the world, Santa must tap into his long-abandoned roots to save Trudy, her family, and Christmas – no matter how many bodies he leaves in his wake.
Violent Night’s strengths and weaknesses are, quite frankly, almost the exact same. The central idea is entertaining enough: a drunken Santa murdering people is always fun. Director Tommy Wirkola has a blast staging sequences of Santa getting drunk in a Bristol pub with mall Santas, or stitching up wounds with a sewing kit, wrapping paper, and twine – a moment both hilarious AND badass.
However, this very gimmick just isn’t strong enough to carry a two-hour film. There’s only so much of Santa killing people with Christmas items (icicles, Christmas stars, a garland garrote, etc.) that one can take before it just starts to get boring. “Oh, gee, Santa’s drunk and pissing out of his sleigh, isn’t that clever?” Perhaps for the first fifteen minutes, but after that, the returns begin to diminish.
The execution faces similar challenges in balancing its tone and story. While the film’s opening promises a grimy 80s schlockfest, the overall product doesn’t quite deliver. The fights aren’t well-choreographed, too focused on the gore to make the actual battles worthwhile. Much like one of Santa’s presents, you have to earn the gory payoff, it doesn’t just come naturally.
Still, as disappointing as the fights may be, Wirkola does manage to redeem himself through moments of creativity. There’s a take on Home Alone that is well worth the price of admission. And it’s hard not to squeal with joy as Christmas carols provide a backdrop to Santa shivving a guy with a sharpened candy cane before shoving him into a wood-chipper. There’s enough here to spread cheer, it just could have been so much more.
As for the acting, there’s pretty much just two categories: David Harbour, and everyone else. Violent Night only works because Harbour commits himself wholeheartedly to the bit – he’s an old-fashioned kind of movie star, and it shows here. As for everyone else, everyone delivers what they can with a series of underwritten roles. John Leguizamo as the film’s take on Hans Gruber kind of rules, as does Cam Giganet as a relatively stupid Hollywood actor. The great Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, and Beverly D’Angelo aren’t bad, they just make you spend most of the movie wondering what they’re doing here.
The Righteous Gemstones’ Edi Patterson basically does a Molly Shannon impression, which works. Leah Brady is appropriately adorable as Trudy, the youngest member of the family, while I’m obsessed with Alexander Elliot is a hoot as the family’s TikTok nephew. Honestly, the only performer who manages to match Harbour’s game energy is Brendan Fletcher, who plays the psycho henchman Krampus.
Violent Night delivers on its premise, nothing more. While I appreciate the idea of a goofy R-rated action comedy meant for teenagers to sneak into over Christmas break, I just can’t help but lament the missed opportunities. This is a fun setup, and could have been so much more. The action could have been better, the jokes could have been funnier, the characters could have been more engaging. You’ll get your money’s worth with Violent Night. But like a greedy child on Christmas Day, you’ll also be left wanting more.
Violent Night is now playing in theaters