Christmas movies, no matter the genre, are the gifts that keep giving. Despite following a specific structure and formula, they are all stuffed with renditions of your favorite holiday tunes, presents, and lots of jolly good cheer. And while Tommy Wirkola’s “Violent Night” doesn’t reinvent the genre set against the most wonderful time of the year, it does improve upon it by utilizing its John Wick-style fight choreography, reverence for the holidays, and love for “Die Hard” and “Home Alone.”
Of course, “Violent Night” is an appropriately bone-crunching play on the famous Christmas Carol, “Silent Night.” It sees a jaded Santa Claus (David Harbour) tired of today’s generation losing sight of the true meaning of Christmas as they ask for nothing but cash and video games. He pours out his cynicism as he downs a pint of beer while listening to mall Santas, and bartenders agree with him or prove his point. But before he can make a final decision, he promises to deliver the last of his gifts.
The film then takes us to Connecticut, where we meet Linda Matthews (Alexis Louder) pick up her estranged husband, Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell). She’s only there because the two had promised their daughter, Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady), to spend Christmas as a family. Jason is the textbook son of a privileged family who is trying his hardest to do right by his family, while Linda is the estranged wife who is forced to spend her holiday at the Lighthouse estate, a place where she gets zero respect.
As the family makes their way to the remote house, a gang of Christmas-codenamed mercenaries led by Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo), Gingerbread (André Eriksen), and Candy Cane (Mitra Suri) prepares to break into the Lightstone home. They plan to hold the Lightstone family hostage and steal $300 million secured behind a high-tech vault.
But little do they know that the same cranky Santa Claus, tired of the ungrateful kids, drunkenly stumbles into the Lightstone home and inadvertently finds himself becoming their savior. Using some of his magic, some Christmas ornaments, and Trudy’s – who is the only one who still believes in Santa – help, Santa shows Mr. Scrooge and his mercenaries why he is no Saint Nick.
If the home break-in premise sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a typical 87North Productions conceit. But it’s how they put their spin on things that makes fun. In “John Wick,” the Russian mobsters didn’t know they were robbing a former assassin. In “Nobody,” a mild-mannered family man trying to leave his violent past behind is forced to go on the attack. Finally, in “Violent Night,” a jaded Santa Claus renews his faith in his mission when Trudy asks for his help to bring her family back together and save them from Mr. Scrooge.
Much of Santa’s dismay at how things are stems from a generation of kids who live on a means of wants more than needs. As such, they do the bare minimum when it comes to being on the nice list, which is magical Torah scrolls that scroll past the names of those who are naughty and nice. Each house that Santa visits have lists of little sentimental value and prove that delivering gifts has lost its meaning. Luckily, Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s script doesn’t lament too much on finding that meaning through anything other than violence, putting the audience right into the action and Santa throws mercenary’s into an ice spike or stabbing a Christmas star into a mercenary’s eye socket and then lighting it up and igniting his head on fire.
But Santa doesn’t want to be involved with whatever is going on between Lightstone and Mr. Scrooge. That’s one of his rules. Nonetheless, this Santa draws from his violent past as a warrior to fight Mr. Scrooge’s mercenaries. Much to the dismay of their leader, who is confused about how his men could be taken out so quickly. And when things look bad, Trudy is there to help give Santa the inspiration he needs to rescue them and save himself from losing his faith.
It would be way too easy to say that “Violent Night” is a “Die Hard,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” and “Home Alone” knockoff. Sure, there’s the uncertainty of the hero knocking out mercenaries one by one, the radio communications, being trapped in one place, not to mention the inventive ways of killing the bad guys, as well as the booby traps and discovering whether or not this Santa is the genuine article. But Casey and Miller’s script finds ways to weave in all those homages without being too hokey. Watching Harbour and Brady banter on the proper word of where Santa should shove coal is fun. Likewise, with Trudy taking the Home Alone booby traps up a notch to hilarious and cringeworthy effects. And as they defend the wealthy estate, Mr. Scrooge grows more frustrated with how highly trained killers could be taken out so quickly by a fantasy character and a kid.
With much of the film taking place in the house, it offers many different action sequences and fight choreography that leads to many cringe-worthy moments that are sometimes supplemented by laughter. It’s the kind of work that you would expect to see from 87North Productions, who don’t hold back on the violence or inventive ways to use its surroundings. And going into the details of each of these fights and Trudy’s booby traps would spoil all the fun. And while “Violent Nights” might not reinvent the genre set against the backdrop of Christmas, it improves it in ways that leave a smile on your face.
While the film does run at an hour and 52 minutes, a lot of the action feels elongated. Not that I want or expect more dialogue and exposition in an action movie, but for a film that runs under two hours, it certainly feels a lot longer than it should. Even so, it doesn’t matter about the backstories of these unlikable and irredeemable characters, other than Santa, Trudy, Linda, and Jason. You’ll have fun eating up how some characters meet their fates. “Violent Night” knows what kind of film it is and doesn’t set out to be anything other than a bloody actioner that changes how we see the Jolly Saint Nick.
Watching Harbour tear through the bad guys with blood, sweat, and grit is so satisfying, and it makes you have a greater appreciation for the man who’s given kids smiles. Not only do we relate to his frustrations, but the film deepens his mythology by giving him a tragic mythology and a journey of redemption. It’s an entertaining performance with an emotional depth that uses the actor’s physicality and acting skills. But despite getting a deepened action-based mythology, it doesn’t feel like there’s enough for a sequel. That said, I’d be open to seeing one should it come up. Because let’s face it, we want to see Santa in another John Wick-style actioner.