Producer: Kelly McCormick, David Leitch and Guy Danella Director: Tommy Wirkola Screenplay: Pat Casey and Josh Miller Cast: David Harbour, John Leguizamo, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Leah Brady, Beverly D’Angelo, Edi Patterson, Cam Gigandet, Alexander Elliot, André Eriksen, Mitra Suri, Brendan Fletcher, Sean Skene and Mike Dopud Distributor: Universal Pictures
This mixture of violence and schmaltz from director Tommy Wirkola (“Dead Snow,” “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”) rivals “Fatman” as the oddest holiday movie of recent years. There have been slasher movies in which the killer dressed in a Santa suit, of course, as well as the anti-Santa of “Krampus,” but in these two the actual Santa Claus is turned into an action hero of sorts, as adept with his fists and weaponry as he is with a sleigh and his bag of presents. Many viewers will probably hoot at the transformation, especially when done up as slickly as it is here; others may find it rather repellent. It’s certainly not subtle.
But “Violent Night” isn’t content with being an action movie. It wants simultaneously to be a sweet, saccharine paean to old-time values. So it has a second hero—a tyke named Trudy (Leah Brady), who’s definitely on the nice list of Santa (David Harbour). She’s just seen “Home Alone,” and is more than able to help Santa defeat a bunch of commando home invaders led by a nasty fellow named Jimmy Martinez (John Leguizamo) who calls himself Scrooge (he also, like the boss in “Reservoir Dogs,” assigns other code names to the members of his crew, in this case holiday-related monikers).
And what a home! It’s actually the palatial estate of Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), the sarcastic, heavily-drinking matriarch of the obscenely wealthy and powerful Lightstone clan. Assembled there for Christmas Eve are her grown children, mousy Jason (Alex Hassell) and greedy Alva (Edi Patterson), along with their families. Trudy is Jason’s daughter by his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder), who’s there for reasons of family solidarity; Alva brings her smug teen son Bert, short for the ridiculous Bertrude (Alexander Elliot), a would-be influencer constantly broadcasting himself on his phone, and a date, a martial-arts movie star named Morgan (Cam Gigandet), who wants Gertrude to finance his latest picture. (A brochure pitching the deal is, in fact, his gift to her.)
Santa arrives during their get-together, having hoisted a few at a bar where he complained about how materialistic kids have gotten. He’s resting alone in a vibrating recliner and enjoying the homemade cookies and Gertrude’s alcohol stock as his sleigh and reindeer wait on the roof. Then Scrooge and his minions take over, slaughtering the Lightstone staff and security detail. The object is to steal the three hundred million bucks Gertrude has embezzled from the U.S. government in a diplomacy-related ruse. He has to remove it from a vault under the house before the Lightstone “extraction force” headed by hardnosed Commander Thorp (Mike Dopud) arrives, supposedly to save the day.
Scrooge holds everyone hostage, but Trudy escapes and hides out in the attic, using a “magic” walkie-talkie to contact Santa, who’d have preferred to fly off undetected but was trapped when his reindeer abandoned him. He’ll confront villain after villain in protracted, bloody encounters wielding the sledgehammer that was his weapon of choice during his days as some sort of medieval warlord (don’t ask—he doesn’t understand the “Christmas magic” himself), while Trudy takes on a couple of Scrooge’s commandos (butler André Eriksen and icy blonde Mitra Suri) using tactics similar to but more graphically cruel than any of the slapstick traps Macaulay Culkin ever employed (which, in truth, were pretty wicked themselves). A few commandos in the crew (like psycho Brendan Fletcher and sullen Sean Skene), which turns out to contain some unexpected allies, will meet their fates at the hands of other members of the Lightstone clan. Naturally things come down to a final face-off between Santa and Scrooge, who vows to end Christmas once and for all, but not to worry: Santa survives, though it takes what might be called a Tinkerbelle “I believe!” moment, though “Miracle on 34th Street” is also an obvious marker.
Harbour clearly enjoys playing Santa Grouch, though he’s hard pressed to manage the whiplash switches from growling cynic to avuncular charmer, and Brady is cute as a button. The big loser is Leguizamo, whose snarling, one-note villain is boring from his first appearance. The rest of the cast struggle with the caricatures they’re playing, but Gigandet, Elliot, Eriksen, Suri and Fletcher have their moments. D’Angelo and Patterson, surprisingly, come off flat.
Though modestly budgeted, “Violent Night” looks pretty rich, with special effects that are cheekily reminiscent of “lovable” Christmas movies of years gone by. Roger Fires’s production design is actually lush, and Matthew Weston’s cinematography elegant, except when he and editor Jim Page have to go into dark, dank mode during the many fight scenes, which go on much too long and often get explicitly gruesome enough to earn (along with some tough language) the R rating. This is not a family movie, though some parents will probably watch it with their kids as all revel in the gore and supposedly witty banter. Dominic Lewis’s score mixes holiday cheer with the usual action-movie clichés.
Sad to say, “Violent Night” may epitomize the sort of Christmas movie that will appeal to our jaded cinematic age, the pratfalls of “Home Alone” replaced by the carnage of a Liam Neeson movie even as it tries awkwardly to retain a sense of icky holiday sweetness. But the idea of a “ho-ho-ho” cut off by a throat-slashing will not be everyone’s cup of eggnog.