While they’re more limited in their windows of opportunity, holiday themed movies face similar challenges that you’d see posed to the sequel of a major franchise. Most takes on Santa Claus have already been done, while his iconic presence has been spun as both naughty and nice. Director Tommy Wirkola’s offering into that latter bucket of canon is the David Harbour-starring Violent Night, which provides an exciting mix of heart and hurt for anyone who encounters this red-suited hero.
Fans of Scrooged, another twisted Christmas delight done right, are probably among the more skeptical viewers approaching this movie. That’s because the fake action film from that comedy, The Night The Reindeer Died, is one of the first references that was brought up when people tried to wrap their heads around the story of Santa (David Harbour) and his long night fighting against a group of thieves led by an enigmatic leader (John Leguizamo). While a feature-length version of that faux blockbuster could be awesome, that’s not what you’re getting with Violent Night.
Rather, the movie navigates three tones that glue this gingerbread house of pain together rather effectively. Writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller of Sonic The Hedgehog fame have run the table, packaging a dark comedy that also works in R-rated action brutality and heartwarming Christmas magic. Whether you can’t get enough of a surprisingly violent Santa, or you’ve lumped this concept in with fruitcake as traditions not to touch, the mixture of genres in Violent Night ties the film up with a pretty, yet gnarly, bow.
A smorgasbord of dark comedy, brutal action, and tender Santa drama make Violent Night one surprising sleigh/slay ride.
Just making a movie with an edgy Santa isn’t enough, as decades of The Santa Clause films have given way to movies like Bad Santa and Fatman that carried the torch into more adult-appropriate material. Those last two projects seem to have fused together to provide Violent Night with the kernel its Santa seems to have grown out of. However, building a fresh yet familiar take on St. Nick needs to pair with a story that isn’t just excuses to execute a new kill every couple of minutes.
It does take a little while for the bloodshed to kick off, so don’t go into the theater thinking it’s just going to be wall-to-wall action. Rather, Violent Night lets us spend a little time with David Harbour’s Santa, as he seriously contemplates giving up on an ever-commercialized world. Layering in plots of a rich family that’s having a proper holiday meltdown, and the group of terrorists trying to steal a gigantic payday, there’s a lot more going on than just “Santa kills a bunch of people while cracking one-liners.”
Don’t get me wrong, you still get that level of enjoyment out of Violent Night, but the fun part is that it’s not a concept executed just for the sake of pumping out another grizzled Kris Kringle. Selling the movie on that violence is clever, as I was actually surprised by how funny and touching sections of this movie happened to be. The story takes a more grown up look at the spirit of giving and being grateful for family. There’s also a healthy amount of callbacks to Die Hard and Home Alone while doing so.
David Harbour’s Santa is both a jolly holiday figurehead and a snarky bloodsoaked warrior, which makes the entire movie work.
Even in the trailers that heralded Violent Night’s journey to the movies, it was clear that David Harbour was all in on playing Santa Claus. It might sound like an obvious observation, but it has to be said: if you don’t believe in your holiday movie’s Santa, it’s going to be an uphill battle to make anything work in the universe you’re trying to craft. I believed in David Harbour’s Santa Claus, both as the kindly, but world-weary man with the bag, and the killer with a sledgehammer named Skullcrusher.
Neither half of that vital equation is made to be the comic relief either. When Harbour’s Santa is delivering presents and critiquing each house’s cookie game, it feels just as at home as the moments where he’s improvising weapons in the fight for his life. Delivering lines like “Seasons beatings” is a precise exercise, provided you want it to play seriously. Violent Night wants you to buy into David Harbour’s performance, and the man commits to the bit every step of the way.
It also helps that the entire ensemble in Violent Night puts up those same level of commitment, further tying the universe together. As the members of John Leguizamo’s team, or any adult for that matter, start to question whether or not Santa Claus is actually real, the way that thread unfolds doesn’t push itself too far in any direction.
What really brings everything home are the moments between Santa and the young Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady). Both having their own crises of faith at the holidays, the two characters challenge each other to see the good in the Christmas season. Sometimes, the movies that are totally based on that concept alone fail to land the concept, but somehow an R-rated, bloody as hell, dark as coal comedy built in that very subplot and made it work.
Violent Night is a rare holiday treat that plays outside the box, while honoring other offbeat holiday classics.
Director Tommy Wirkola wants audiences to enjoy Violent Night in all of its gory delights, but he also wants audiences to leave believing they’ve enjoyed a Christmas movie. The man behind the very rowdy Dead Snow and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has fulfilled that quest, as he and his cast and crew kept a close eye on where the tone is headed at any given moment.
There are moments that both fans of Home Alone and Die Hard will get a kick out of, as Violent Night tips its hat in some creative ways. Its tribute to the former is particularly inspired, as you can now see what an R-rated version of that classic might have looked like. Raiding the toy boxes of Christmas mainstays, the intent isn’t to just turn on the nostalgia like a string of lights. Creatively mashing these themes together creates something new enough for people to really get behind, while also wanting to revisit those favorites.
Whether or not Violent Night has legs in the long run of holiday movies is still to be determined. No matter how good your turn at bat happens to be, sometimes it just takes a moment for the public to rally around what could eventually become a yearly tradition. For the moment, those readers looking for a truly fun Santa film that busts out of the cookie cutter patterns have a new champion to watch enter the ring.
Violent Night is a holiday action sugar rush that never forgets to be brutal, funny and heartwarming, whatever the occasion calls for. The nice will be vindicated and the naughty will tremble in fear, as David Harbour’s is coming to town with his own brand of justice and a taste for only the finest Christmas cookies.