Review | ‘Violent Night’ — Santa goes full viking


Allen Fraser/Universal Pictures via AP

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Alex Hassell, from left, Beverly D’Angelo (obscured), Edi Patterson, Alexis Louder, Leah Brady and David Harbour in a scene from “Violent Night.”

By Jacob Mraz, Staff Writer

David Harbour shines as Santa Claus in this bloody homage to Christmas classics of yesteryear. 

Violent Night” is not what you would traditionally call a good movie. Its plot is rife with tired cliches, and its overall presentation relies far too heavily on shockingly graphic violence at the expense of all else. Its jokes are often painfully corny, and most of the acting is, to put it nicely, flat. But somewhere in this almost catastrophically absurd blend of gore and family drama emerges a thoroughly enjoyable experience. How? Well, aside from Harbour’s acting and screen presence, I’m not really sure — let’s call it Christmas magic. 

Okay, it’s mostly just Harbour. 

Directed by Tommy Wirkola, “Violent Night” opens on Christmas Eve in a pub where two Santas are lamenting the changing nature of Christmas — materialism over holiday cheer. As Harbour’s Santa drowns his sorrows in a bottle, the other Santa offers to pay Harbour’s tab in the spirit of Christmas. Harbour’s Santa graciously accepts before drunkenly leaving for the roof — evidently mistaking it for the front door. Shocked, the bartender chases after him only to see him and his reindeer flying overhead. This Santa, it turns out, is very much real — and very much a mess, as he accidentally vomits on the awestruck bartender. 

Somewhere across the world we find Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell) meeting up with his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). The trio, although a little awkward together, embark for Jason’s mother’s gargantuan estate in the middle of nowhere to spend Christmas with his materialistic and crude family in a plot ripped straight out of Lifetime. 

Even with the family drama aside, all is not well this Christmas. As night falls, a group of mercenaries, led by a criminal mastermind named Jimmy Martinez, also referred to as “Mr. Scrooge” (John Leguizamo), infiltrate the house and systematically eliminate its guards. In homage to one of Christmas’ all time greats, “Die Hard,” the mercs inform the Lightstone matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) that they are after the vault in the estate’s basement. The vault, which holds $300,000,000 in funds stolen from the U.S. government, sets the stage for the rest of the movie. 

Jimmy Martinez (John Leguizamo) is the merc leader and a poor man’s Hans Gruber — the central villain of “Die Hard” — but lacks most of the original’s nuisance or wit. In reality, he is closer to burglar Harry Lime (Joe Pesci) from the 1990 classic “Home Alone.” He is gruff, grumpy and almost cartoonishly villainous — but this is intentional. 

Why? Well, Trudy Lightstone, our darling Kevin McCallister for this film, has coincidentally just watched “Home Alone” for the first time. Following this obvious series of events we see Trudy setting booby traps later in the film for a few of the mercs. Only, instead of cheap gags and BB gun bruises, she impales someone on a bed of nails after a bowling ball falls on his head — did I mention this movie was brutal? 

Our John McClane, the protagonist of “Die Hard,” is likewise not a fit New York City police detective, but a melancholy, overweight, 1,100-year-old viking Santa who, with the power of a beautiful sledge hammer, ho-ho-hos his way through scores of goons and bones to the rescue.

Harbour is a miracle for this movie and its sole bright spot. When the engine is roaring and the pain train is running, he is firmly at the helm — his naughty list brimming with fresh coal to keep the fire burning bright. The fight sequences are well choreographed and fun, never taking themselves too seriously or relying too heavily on that dreaded realism. Likewise, Harbour appears to enjoy himself through it all, which only adds to the appeal. But in scenes where Harbour is absent, viewers will notice just how severely everything falls apart. 

Obviously a single actor cannot make a movie, and for all his merits Harbour cannot save the movie from itself completely. With a run time far too close to two hours, “Violent Night” suffers from unnecessary break sequences. These sections, which show the “drama” unfolding in the house, add filler between Harbour’s hammer swings and ultimately make the first half in particular almost insufferable.

The plight of the central characters, minus Santa, is so unbearably dull that viewers will likely wish something bad would happen to them just to spice up the plot — but of course, this is a Christmas movie. Even if someone gets skewered by a giant plastic icicle, you have to draw the line somewhere, right? There’s an entire monologue between Santa and Trudy to this effect on the proper noun they should use when describing where Santa should shove coal. Yes, some of the jokes are pretty bad. But they aren’t always, and there’s enough comedy between Harbour and the other characters to pull through these dark spots — if only just. 

“Violent Night” may not be the next “Die Hard” — but it is entertaining. Although this low-brow, gory action-comedy has a far better chance of becoming a cult classic than a box office hit, it still has the power to keep viewers engaged for most of its run-time. 

When everything is working, it’s a fun ride and an enjoyable experience on the big screen — one viewers should see if they get the chance, if for no other reason than to watch Harbour give one of the most fun performances of his career to date. Sometimes that’s all a movie needs — and what better time than Christmas to celebrate simple, honest fun?