“David Harbour slays it (pun intended!) as Santa in a brilliant black comedy action film that is bats**t nuts as well as ripping the Christmas movie genre a new one!” We review Universal Pictures Violent Night.
The traditional Christmas movie plotline you can write with your eyes shut. The family has problems, someone arrives to teach them the true meaning of Christmas, and something dramatic happens, before all is tied up nicely by the end credits. It is a cliche of the highest order. While the Tommy Wirkola black comedy action film Violent Night does use some of these cliches in its story, it does so with delicious venom. It takes the traditional Christmas story and turns it so far on its head, you’d never believe it. It’s A Wonderful Life, this certainly ain’t. What the film is will go down as one of the most enjoyably nasty Christmas flicks of them all.
Take the traditional Christmas movie, all schmaltz, and happiness, the wonder of Christmas, the legend of Santa Claus, the Home Alone Movies, and Die Hard, mix well, and you have Violent Night. But this concoction, despite sagging in the middle, is a rather tasty one to consume. Forget movies such as Silent Night, Deadly Night with someone dressed as Santa, and committing mass murder. Here, we have the REAL Santa taking on terrorists at their own game. It won’t win any Oscars, that’s for sure. But it will entertain the masses with its joyful mayhem.
When a group of mercenaries attacks the estate of a wealthy family on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus must step in to save the day (and Christmas).
During its 112-minute runtime, the film takes everything we love about Christmas and blows it all to hell. People are killed in various nasty ways, and children are threatened by machine gun-toting villains. The booby traps of Home Alone are taken up to the next level, and Santa is a self-centered, alcoholic, disillusioned badass. What’s not to like? The villains of the piece are all token pieces in a story that is designed to make us wince at the violence, laugh at the comedy, and suspend our belief for the duration. And it works brilliantly.
Where else would you expect to see Santa completely slaughter bad guys using stuff we take for granted? All the while taking the base story of a child’s belief in Santa Claus and using it as a decent plot point to accentuate the mayhem. And using the magic of Christmas as a vital part of the overall story.
We must, of course, start with David Harbour as Santa. This is a role Harbour was born to play. From the minute we see him, getting drunk in a bar in England, we know we are in for an original ride. Harbour plays Santa as a man who has had his fill of being ‘Jolly Saint Nick’. The spirit of his job and the lack of appreciation for him and his gifts are now replaced by despair. Kids nowadays demand cash or expensive electronic gifts and are unappreciative of them, expecting to get them as a god-given right. We feel for him and his despair, even as he flies away on his sled (and gives the audience a great belly laugh at the result).
We can believe Harbour’s performance as Santa in the more quiet moments between violence and mayhem. But when he kicks into gear as what can only be described as ‘Die Hard Santa’, we cheer him on. They named the film Violent Night for a reason. When Santa is in action, we see him slaughter people left, right, and center in some truly nasty ways. Anything and everything is a weapon in this Santa’s hands. And Harbour plays the character with glee. He appears to be having the time of his life throughout proceedings and turns in an action performance we wouldn’t expect. And his comedic timing is also impeccable.
John Leguizamo plays the leader of the villains, simply named Mr. Scrooge. And plays the part brilliantly. Leguizamo takes the token character of someone who doesn’t believe in Santa until the big reveal and gives it a nasty, villainous twist. And he also instills a great sense of comedy in the character. Not since Hans Gruber have we enjoyed a villain as much as we do here. Yes, some of what he does is typical villainous stuff, that much is a given. But in many scenes, Leguizamo actually gives a childlike innocence to the character. When he makes a threat in one scene, he is presented with a reason why he shouldn’t carry out his threat. And his response is brilliantly humorous. The look of frustration and being one-upped is sublime.
THE REST OF THE MAIN CAST
In many ways, the rest of the cast is playing second fiddle to the pairing of Harbour and Leguizamo. They all get their own time to shine during proceedings but are completely overshadowed by the two main stars. Alex Hassell gets his fair share of screen time as Jason Lightstone. But we are never really invested in him as much as we should be. The same goes for Alexis Louder as Linda Matthews, Jason’s estranged wife. Both are given token roles that are cliched, despite having a fair amount of things to do. We see the start of their story near the film’s beginning and are never really in doubt about how it’s going to end. But both do their chance to join in the film’s action in a wonderfully fun and violent sequence near the climax of the film.
Young Leah Brady is the heartbeat of the film as Trudy Lightstone, Jason and Linda’s daughter. And she delivers a heartwarming performance for one so young. Trudy believes in Santa. And when she is given a ‘Magic’ radio to speak with him early in the film, she gets the shock of her life later on when he answers. Her conversations with Harbour’s Santa are what we expect in a schmaltzy Christmas movie that pops up on TV during the festive season.
But that’s the point. It lulls us into a false sense of security that when the rug is pulled out from under us with the realization that Trudy is Santa’s sidekick in all this, it is a welcome surprise. Leah Brady delivers a performance that moves us with her childish innocence and has us feeling for her, only to cheer her on in one of the film’s standout sequences while giving us a huge set of laughs.
Beverly D’Angelo turns in a wonderful performance as Gertrude Lightstone, the head of the Lightstone family. Gertrude heads the family corporation and makes her children fight for her love. And is, at the start, someone we despise for her behavior, lack of compassion, and true nastiness that oozes from her pores. Her cutting wit and the sheer emotionless way she treats her family and her staff is genuinely brilliant. She also gets to deliver some classic putdowns to those involved. One of which is a true piece of comedic genius. Hers is a standout from the rest of the supporting cast. And one that will last long in the memory once the end credits have rolled.
WRITING & DIRECTION
The writing team of Pat Casey and Josh Miller have come up with a Christmas nightmare that is both hilariously brilliant and nastily violent. They have taken the normal Christmas movie ideas and ripped them to shreds. They have used every cliche in the book. Only to turn them into something that we can all sit back and enjoy. We can recognize these themes throughout. But are amazed at how easily they can be turned into what the film is. The theme of Christmas magic is used here as a plot device that turns the tables on everything and everybody. And although the film can’t be quite described as original in some departments, what the writers have delivered is inspiring.
Tommy Wirkola’s direction is assured as usual. He takes the story and script and turns it into a movie that will go down as an adult Christmas classic. It isn’t in the same vein as Die Hard, but it runs it pretty damn close at times. Wirkola has a terrific eye for proceedings and delivers a movie that adults can enjoy. It will become one of those films that we will be watching every year once the children are safely tucked up in bed. It will become a guilty pleasure for the adults to sneakily watch to tone down the sweetness of the family Christmas movies. And Wirkola knows this and delivers it to us with added relish.
Violent Night is the perfect antidote to all those typical festive movies we see every year. David Harbour slays it (pun intended!) as Santa in a brilliant black comedy action film that is bats**t nuts. As well as ripping the Christmas movie genre a new one. From the start of proceedings right through to the climax, we are in for a rollercoaster ride of fun, emotion, and comedy. And extreme violence! I guarantee you’ll never look at a candy cane in the same way again.
The film will become a classic in its own right, and it deserves to. Despite feeling we are in familiar territory at times, I can assure you, we most certainly aren’t. We will be looking at our chimneys in a whole new light after this film. Grab your eggnog, put the kids to bed, and prepare for Santa to take you on the ride of your life. The film is a sleigh ride of fun from the start and one I can’t wait to take again.
Violent Night will be released in theaters on December 2nd. Book your tickets now.
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Carl Roberts is the News Editor of The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force frequently!