Watching David Harbour raise hell as a badass Santa Claus might sound like a gift, but all you really get is a lump of coal.
Artistically abandoned and morally bankrupt, Violent Night from director Tommy Wirkola (of the similarly-shaded 2009 Norwegian zombie flick Dead Snow) is ostensibly, and exclusively, for anyone who’s adopted the refrain “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” as their entire personality each December.
While it’s blessed with some miracles, including a game David Harbour and a clever spin on the Santa Claus legend, Violent Night squanders all its holiday cheer in making sure its logline is infinitely more interesting than anything in its exhausting two-hour runtime.
Violent Night opens on December 2, but even from the jump it feels worn and familiar, evocative of better movies that similarly imagine Santa Claus as a living entity. At a London bar, Santa (Harbour) bemoans the de-evolution of Christmas into a season of selfishness and commercialism. Nothing Santa lectures on for five minutes is authentically explored for the rest of the movie, which leaves the script, by Sonic scribes Josh Miller and Patrick Casey, feeling like their personal soapboxes made as a first draft.
While Santa goes on a drunken Christmas Eve sleigh ride, a pathetic family party hosted by an uber-wealthy matriarch is taken over by its gun-toting staff, all mercenaries led by “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) on a heist to steal her $300 million. Young Trudy (Leah Brady), held hostage with the rest of her dysfunctional family, still believes in Santa Claus, so it’s a good thing when Santa, who’s actually an ancient Viking berserker à la The Northman cursed by unknown forces to spread holiday cheer, unwittingly arrives at the house to save the family.
Despite its origins as a product from 87North, whose background lies in the successes of action franchises like John Wick and The Matrix, Violent Night fails to demonstrate the same finesse in its action design. Watching Santa break, impale, and eviscerate faceless bad guys has its charms, but the gore frequently eclipses its grace, and even action aficionados will be left wishing for more.
Something sinister undercuts the movie’s try-hard middle finger to the wholesomeness of Christmas movies, and identifying it means looking at the picture at a molecular level. Uncomfortably, some of Santa’s magical powers imply he knows everyone. Everyone was a kid once, and everyone was naughty or nice. As the bodies pile up and pools of blood seep at the seams, there’s an icky feeling that Violent Night is bearing witness to a man on a killing spree of former children he once gave gifts to. Sure, they’re now terrorists, but an action movie that makes your mind wander in this direction isn’t doing its job of entertaining you.
Absent of meaning, original direction, and even a memorable script, Violent Night is manic and dim. It’s equal parts callous and craven; its obnoxious in its determination to take down the overly sentimental Christmas genre with John Wick-like brutality, but too cowardly to interrogate any real ideas, including its brimming violence in the face of a terrified child. When mass shootings are a legitimate fear for children and families, there’s a ghoulishness in the camera taking the point of view of a gunman.
Whatever stray cookie crumbs of glee to be found here come from the work of David Harbour, who has an uncanny ability to convert putrid scriptwriting into a feast. But he alone is not enough to save this holiday from a hangover. Its sinful sacrificing of better, more ambitious ideas for 87North’s comfortable speed of Teflon carnage feels like getting what you wanted on Christmas morning without the batteries. If Violent Night is a seasonal treat, it’s a treat of stale cookies and sour milk. Put it on the naughty list.
Violent Night opens in theaters on December 2.