Candy canes may be sweet and cutely reminiscent of Christmas, but it turns out they make a great shiv if you suck on one in just the right way. That’s just one of the delightful details that makes Violent Night, the latest action-comedy from Dead Snow director Tommy Wirkola, worth a trip to the cinema this holiday season. Featuring Hollywood’s resident curmudgeon David Harbour as a hilariously haggard Saint Nick, this anti-Christmas Christmas movie foregrounds its B-movie naughtiness and pays just enough attention to its more mainstream niceness, resulting in fun for the whole family—or the adults in families, anyway.
Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s screenplay is blessedly straightforward: on Christmas Eve, a team of mercenaries takes a wealthy family hostage just as Santa Claus is delivering presents at their compound. Abandoned by his reindeer and running low on Christmas magic, this world-weary Santa must believe in himself again to cross the thieves off his naughty list (and dispatch them in delightfully graphic ways). It’s a premise that’s just clever enough to work; although too many anachronistically cheery needle drops during gruesome fight sequences abound, there’s plenty to milk from the juxtaposition of family-friendly Christmas spirit and R-rated action and comedy.
Take the fight sequence that finds Santa pulling out toys at random from his Mary Poppins-like magic sack, hoping to wield one as a weapon (“Video game … video game … Die Hard on Blu-Ray …”) until he not only embeds an ornamental star in a foe’s eye, but plugs in its lights so that his adversary’s head catches fire. Wirkola is a master at staging such visual gags amid impeccably choreographed brawls that feel believably desperate, improvised, and so stupid they’re smart. Tinsel, nutcrackers, cookies, icicles, Christmas trees—anything within reach is fair game for Harbour’s sinful saint and the hostages he’s charged with saving.
While watching Santa swing a hammer proves delightful (there’s a too-brief glimpse of backstory that positions him as a Viking warrior, and why not?), most inspired is the scene that reimagines Home Alone with an R rating. Leah Brady’s precocious young Trudy, recently influenced by that very Christmas classic, stages an escalating series of booby traps that take both viewers and her poor assailants by surprise. At my screening, audience members gave the sequence a deserved standing ovation.
The laughs-per-minute ratio is so high during those fight scenes that everything between them can feel like lulls. Comedy in violence is more Wirkola’s forte than comedy in family squabbles, and Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder as Trudy’s separated parents bring little to that table. Luckily their foil is Beverly D’Angelo in a role she was born to play, the fabulously profane matriarch of the Lightstones’ corporation.
Edi Patterson, Cam Gigandet, and Alexander Elliot round out the family, each more shamelessly despicable than the last (no one here is good, for goodness’ sake). As mercenary leader “Mr. Scrooge,” John Leguizamo extends his track record of pitch-perfect supporting performances; by opting for genuinely threatening rather than playing up the yuks, he establishes the stakes of this otherwise thin story. And Brady is positively adorable, the perfect complement to Harbour and the catalyst for bringing out his inevitable soft side.
Dare I say there’s an insightful element to Violent Night that positions Harbour as a cinematic Santa for the ages? Swigging beers on his big night, our hero dubs today’s kids “little junkies” who enjoy their presents for mere moments before wanting more, more, more. He later encounters a Christmas wish list that just asks for cash. There’s obvious comedy in a jolly old Saint Nick who drinks whiskey instead of milk, pisses out of his sleigh, and bashes bad guys’ heads in, but Casey and Miller, with Wirkola’s genre-balancing direction, have actually crafted an intriguingly anti-capitalist Claus.
“The naughty list just grows and grows,” he laments at one point, in response to a new wave of wrongdoers making this night before Christmas anything but calm. But it doubles as a snapshot of human society in 2022; you won’t catch me claiming Santa isn’t real, as I don’t want to end up on the naughty list. All I’m saying is if he’s up there at the North Pole now, it’s not impossible that he resembles Harbour in this film: anti-greed, burnt out, and cynical as hell.