It’s often a dime a dozen whenever a new holiday season film arrives on the scene. With any Hallmark original, that may be taken literally. Rarely in this era does one relish in its support from a studio or hotshot producer, and jumpstart a grand tradition not seen since the days when Lethal Weapon or The Long Kiss Goodnight could thrive on a marquee. If one were looking for a cutesy, sentimental diatribe of the season, something entirely silly with nothing fresh to offer, Tommy Wirkola’s Violent Night might not be what one’s looking for. It thrives rather energetically on what we as an audience have missed, without often realizing, until reaching its most obvious and ordinary. Even then, it is quite the blood-soaked, near existential trek.
Much of that describes Santa’s (David Harbour) perspective. His holiday spirit has been sapped, working up liquid courage in between legs of his transcontinental journey the night of December 24th. Over 1000 years in the role, relationship on the rocks, and unwavering guilt from his past have left the man cold, cynical, and without zeal. He makes the declaration that this year’s gift run could be his last, thus treating it like a bender with nothing to lose. His work’s cut out for him, however. Amidst his pairing of cookies with classic era whiskey at one rather fancy house, Mr. Claus is thrust into a hostage situation. Downstairs, the wealthy Lightstone clan are the targets. And an elaborate robber named Scrooge (John Leguizamo) is the smooth talking thief, goons in tow, seeking a literal fortune from an underground vault owned by matriarch oil baroness Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo).
At first, Santa looks to cut and run, complicated by the absence of eight scared reindeer. But then his curmudgeon’s zest melts upon meeting granddaughter Trudy (Leah Brady), trapped with her parents Jason and Linda (Alex Hassell, Alexis Younger) and their egotistical relatives – Sister Alva (Edi Patterson), her oafish actor husband Morgan (Cam Gigandet), and their Bieber-esque influencer son Bert (Alexander Elliot). Thus leaving Santa on the hook to take down this not entirely merry band of evildoers one by one.
And it’s often in a frenetic panic that this duel between naughty and nice transpires. Just as often, with little to say that hadn’t already been accomplished in subtler terms in better films. Wirkola (What Happened to Monday), working off a script by Pat Casey & Josh Miller (Sonic the Hedgehog), is tasked with quite the challenge. To amp the intensity from what, on the page, is an admissible parody of framework shared between Die Hard, Home Alone, and snippets of John Wick. The elements of which have been whipped up into a blender, thrown in with self-inserts and a tough grizzled backstory for their lead. At times, this mix appears rather cluttered for the sake of heavy runtime, busy even. The finer details wind up flying over one’s head, distracting the bigger picture from imprinting, stifling its legs as potential midnight crowd fodder.
Such hurried familiarity is unavoidable here, hobbling its ability to stand out. Wirkola is not fazed, seeking his avenues to craft loving mirrors of homage, stopping just shy of copycat syndrome. He finds them without much delay, enveloping with a hyper-violent gloss. The type of blissful cadence long missing from a major studio holiday title. A penchant for debauchery bordering on the crude and gruesome, embracing its R rating, while leaving enough space to toy with tropes, be inventive with its series of kills, no one ever approached straightforwardly. There’s always a noisy flourish attached, ranging from a choreographed fight scene set to the strains of Bryan Adams, to a purely acrobatic booby trap only a deranged Kevin McAllister could dream up.
We have that space for creativity to blossom in Wirkola’s hands, balanced by a deeper sensation for a heartfelt core. That was perhaps the least expected point in Casey and Miller’s script, an emotional counterweight even I wouldn’t expect amid full-on savagery. But it exists on varying wavelengths, primarily with Brady’s on-point portrayal of a gifted kid gripping with her parents’ separation and her own beliefs. How the two intertwine is a unique brand of quiet genius within itself. One of an endless list of eccentricities Harbour embodies with his spin on Kringle.
The holiday icon might be immortal to many, his anima ever-present in this world. Yet he knows the thrill is gone, craving something different to fight against his love handles and myriad tattoos, aka “the full Thor”. Harbour is easily the right person for this job, possessing the proper fight skills, comic timing and impassioned weariness to encapsulate a mid-life (maybe three-quarter-life) crisis. Like a tired lawman awaiting his pension, this leading star proves a familiar enough adage that tricks up one’s sleeve can often re-manifest by surprise. Call it down to earth wizardry versus a very real enemy, a sniveling baddie sans nefarious mustache. That’s Leguizamo in a nutshell, rediscovering his evilest bone with a foreboding strop.
Wirkola is a reliable enough master of milking the moment, taking many cues from co-producer David Leitch (Bullet Train). The latter’s knack for high-octane, ultra-violent cinematics with a Hong Kong flavor remains a quiet downbeat against the film’s unfeigned expression of holiday magic, the joy it ignites in a person. We can at least say, the camera follows along with each weave in and out of tone, DP Matthew Webster (Maniac) lured into unbridled cardio, keeping up with Jonathan Eusebio’s (The Matrix Resurrections) unflinching choreography. Every physical move or muscle twitch remains high in the foreground, keeping the eyes engaged throughout.
There might not always be an original lens to hook onto, and widen our line of sight with this snowy, oft-gladsome display of carnality. The base pleasure within, which Wirkola is wont to reinforce, easily makes up for that noticeable shortfall. Violent Night stumbles in with its issues, baggage from familiar plot devices, slowing down its roll while moving breakneck. It remains a fun, if not also endearing effort, capturing a throwback atmosphere. A film swimming in the unordinary, aided by its unremitting seasonal joy, and a near remorseful affair of the heart in Harbour’s mindset. It may be a situation that’s played out on screen times before. Holiday awkwardness in a tense group setting, responding by clever forward thinking. But it’s certainly one not done so effusively by a major studio in so long, we forget what it felt like. To me, that may be the victory here – gory, yet still jolly. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Violent Night opens in theaters December 2nd; rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references; 112 minutes.