By ROBERT DANVERS
Starring David Harbour, John Leguizamo and Cam Gigandet
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Written by Pat Casey and Josh Miller
It’s Christmas Eve. A gang of thieves, armed to the teeth with both weaponry and tech support, has breached a secure location and taken hostages. But one lone out-of-towner is hiding on the premises; outgunned and out of sorts from his travel, he’s still going to take on these mercenary criminals with everything he’s got and then some. The bad guys came prepared for anything–except John Mc…ho-ho-hold the walkie-talkie; could it be–Santa?
You bet your eggnog; “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!” meets “Jingle all the way” in VIOLENT NIGHT, the latest winter-bloodyland tale from DEAD SNOW duo director Tommy Wirkola. As a labored prologue none-too-convincingly set in “Bristol, England” shows, Santa Claus is real and walks/sleigh-rides among us on the 24th-25th of December. STRANGER THINGS’ David Harbour dons the red suit and beard et al., but it’s clear he and his look have seen better days; after hundreds of years on the gift-giving beat, he’s hard-drinking, weary of latter-day materialism and prone to relieve himself unceremoniously. He also has a Viking-warrior past that consumed him prior to the higher calling; as he confides, “If there had been a ‘Naughty’ list back then, I’d-a been top dog.”
His fierce combat chops come in handy when 7-year-old Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady) is able to reach out to him via a walkie-talkie once Christmas Eve with her separated parents Jason and Linda (Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder) is ruptured by an estate invasion at the former’s familial home. Santa is stranded there mid-rounds when his ride (read: a certain animal transport) gets spooked by gunfire. The cadre of nasty soldiers-for-hire is captained by “Mr. Scrooge” (John Leguizamo), who intends to hit Christmas–and, ultimately, Santa–where it hurts while hunting for millions of dollars supposedly stashed in the mansion.
Serving up a heaping banquet of stabbings, impalings, shootings, and other kill methods by way of everything from a sledgehammer to bowling balls (plural), VIOLENT NIGHT scrupulously has its unfortunates scream in pain and then sustain additional grievous bodily harm before expiring. The makeup and FX work heightens the pooling blood just so, and more than one head gets separated from its body. It’s all gleefully captured by Wirkola and cinematographer Matthew Weston, his collaborator on both DEAD SNOWs.
As scripted by Pat Casey and Josh Miller, VIOLENT NIGHT is up front about its many influences; the Christmas pudding has been spiced with traces of DIE HARD and its first sequel, HOME ALONE and its first two sequels, and more. The film’s secret weapon turns out to be a working belief in Santa, allowing for some of the iconic tenets to be puckishly accessed with amusing spins–such as the “Naughty” and “Nice” lists. For maximum enjoyment, viewers should peer closely at these when they materialize.
Fans of Harbour’s work on STRANGER THINGS will be particularly sated by his arc here, in terms of both the actor’s physicality and emoting. Brady strikes the right note of plucky charm; while not often in the same frame with Harbour, she more than holds up her end of their characters’ walkie conversations. She is one of several performers who have been encouraged by Wirkola to lean into the pageantry of the material; Edi Patterson goes on a busman’s holiday from her TV series THE RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES to partake of still more grasping-family dynamics, while Beverly D’Angelo’s participation as the clan’s matriarch goes beyond the requisite NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION nod to allow the actress to provide some tart punch.
At 112 minutes, VIOLENT NIGHT seems obliged to layer in breaks for itself; this doesn’t particularly make sense from a narrative standpoint, and some developments in the final third strain what’s already an overextended credibility factor. The movie also can’t quite bring itself to go as bonkers as one might like beyond the bloodletting; as with many a 21st-century holiday entertainment (see also this month’s SPIRITED), it’s trying to have its fruitcake and eat it too. One is never unaware of the painstaking choreography in the staging of the mayhem; the marks are hit, and hit well, within sustained shots, but they feel overly familiar even when specific movies aren’t being referenced. Still, given that holiday gatherings have been thwarted for so many over the past couple of years, Universal’s return to the cracked-Christmas genre (following 2015’s KRAMPUS and 2019’s BLACK CHRISTMAS) can’t help but be a gift to moviegoers who either don’t mind or overtly crave holly-berry-red as part of their seasonal palate.