Within its opening minutes, Tommy Wirkola's Violent Night has a drunk Santa Claus puking off his sleigh onto a woman. That moment telegraphs the film's sense of humor that rarely rises above "gee isn't it funny that Santa is bad and can fight." That isn't to say David Harbour doesn't bring some joy to the role of the real St. Nick. It is just that the movie never rises up to what he brings to the table. Violent Night is indeed violent, occasionally funny, sometimes charming, and all-around messy.
Mixing Home Alone, Die Hard, and Bad Santa together, often stealing from these films rather than being inspired by them, Violent Night takes what should have been a straightforward premise and convolutes it with unnecessary plot twists and family dynamics all while shoehorning in a message about the magic of believing in Christmas. It is a lot for a film whose basic pitch must have been "Santa Claus is like John Wick." Although he isn't. Harbour's jolly St. Nick is a disillusioned drunk who is giving up on Christmas when the film starts. He isn't a particularly skilled fighter but his brute force often comes in handy. As does some mysterious Christmas magic that is never explained.
I am all for this high concept. Santa Claus dispensing with baddies in Christmas-themed ways sounds like a blast. It is a great idea that is diminished by an overly involved plot that spends way too much time on unlikeable characters. Pat Casey and Josh Miller's script provides an unneeded origin story of Santa, lots of rich people bickering, and only the occasional action sequence. It was enough for me to want to yell at the film, "just get to the good stuff already."
While Santa might be losing his faith in Christmas, young Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady) has not. She is a devoted fan of Santa. Her recently separated parents Jason and Linda (Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder) have joined together for the holiday to make sure Trudy has a good Christmas. They are headed to Jason's super-rich family's estate. Everyone is vying for matriarch Gertrude's (Beverly D'Angelo) favor in hopes she will turn the family business over to them.
The plot thread involving Trudy's separated parents is muddy to start, as is Jason's relationship with his family. Things get crazy when a pack of criminals led by John Leguizamo crashed Christmas to steal 300 million dollars from the Lightstones. Santa gets caught in the mix of things while trying to deliver Trudy a present. The troubled relationship between Jason and Linda is clearly related to his family but the screenplay never gives audiences enough to grab onto in order to care. A late reveal is uninspired and further derails the film from its main premise. The character motivations here are so undefined that you will scratch your head at each reveal.
When Santa starts to kill off some of the bad guys, the film does become fun. A clever kill with a tree topper early on promises that the film is going to delight in some yuletide mayhem. It does and doesn't, eventually resorting to having Santa use a hammer to do most of the dispensing. Aside from a few creative moments, much of the action is muted by the use of bad CGI blood and gore. This fun is bogged down so heavily by subplots, murky motivations, and double-crossings that leave you scratching your head. The fun is also derivative including one fun sequence that is lifted so exactly from Home Alone that the only clear difference is the focus on blood.
Violent Night is fun in small stretches. I wish the film had streamlined its plot and focused more on Santa cleverly offing baddies. When it does focus on this, Harbour is a blast to watch.