We’re scarcely five minutes into Tommy Wirkola’s naughty new Christmas tale “Violent Night” before David Harbour’s chubby, drunk, and righteously pissed off St. Nick is puking off his sleigh onto one very confused bartender and revealing himself to, yes indeed, be the jolly one himself. If you can vibe with that whiplash-inducing comedic opening — gallons of vomit mixed with some magical holiday sweetness — you just might be in the right frame of mind to receive what’s to come in this hyper-violent, occasionally funny, and often oddly charming holiday trifle.
The big draw of “Violent Night” is, of course, right there in the title: the violence! Wirkola has often delighted in turning basic-ish ideas into bloody good fun with the addition of head-bashing twists. You can practically hear the elevator pitches: “It’s a horror movie about Nazis…who are also zombies” or “It’s Hansel and Gretel…but also they’re witch hunters.” Santa Claus is a natural fit for that sort of sensibility, and with the added zip and zeal of production shingle 87North (“Bullet Train,” “Nobody”), it’s got the bone-crunching stunts to match Santa’s panache for killing baddies.
And yet, for a film that finds its deepest joys in something as slam-dunk as an angry Santa Claus garroting a bad guy with a string of Christmas lights, “Violent Night” often muddles its best ideas with one heck of a convoluted plot.
It’s not just that Harbour’s Santa Claus is mad or dissatisfied or a bit too hung up on his past as a Viking warrior (yes, Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s screenplay dives deep into his origins; no, the Viking story is not entirely their own fiction), it’s that this first big-screen venture for this particular Santa is too often hammered not by baddies but by backstory. “Just stab that guy in the eye with a tree topper again!” audiences might be tempted to yell when the film skids to a halt to unpack motivations and mythos, and who could possibly blame them?
Allen Fraser/courtesy of Universal Pictures
In short: Come for David Harbour throwing bad guys into giant Christmas trees, stay for him eventually feeding them into a wood chipper. Everything in between? Eh, the cheer and glee run dry whenever the blood does, too.
Harbour’s Santa is many things when we first meet him: drunk, teetering on the edge of divorce, and understandably angry about the thirst for consumerism that’s corrupted adults and kids alike. But he’s still got a soft spot for the kiddos on his “nice list,” and he’s committed to the Christmas Eve rigamarole of delivering presents.
Meanwhile, one of Santa’s most devoted fans and bonafide nice list champ, young Trudy Lightstone (cutie Leah Brady) is having her own complicated Christmas. Her recently separated parents Jason and Linda (Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder) are playing nice for the holiday, temporarily reuniting at the Lightstone family mansion, where Jason’s nutty mom Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) delights in bringing together her clan, if only to continue toying with them for funsies. So far, so good, but from there, Casey and Miller pile on the complications: the Lightstones aren’t just rich, they’re super-rich, and most of their family time is spent ripping each other to shreds in hopes of securing Gertrude’s affection (and big bucks).
The Jason-Linda-Trudy subplot is already fuzzy enough when “Violent Night” adds still more problems: The Lightstones’ Christmas is about to get really wild because a pack of crazed mercenaries (led by John Leguizamo, who is arguably having just as much fun as Harbour) is waiting in the wings, all the better to kidnap and blackmail the family for their stacks of cash. Some of that is surely connected to whatever the hell is happening with Jason and Linda’s marriage, right? But also, why? Thankfully, Santa is mixing and mingling about, set on giving Trudy a present, when he gets sucked into, uh, freeing the really rich assholes from the very mad and very prepared bad guys?
As Santa stomps and cuts and maims his way through the Lightstone mansion, with a giddy Trudy going full “Home Alone” to support him, “Violent Night” is often quite entertaining. (Wait for the moment Wirkola unveils a truly demented spin on “The Nutcracker”; you’ll never look at that ballet the same way.) But even as Wirkola and company ratchet up the violence and find still more clever ways to off the naughtiest of the naughty, a hefty sack of subplots, personal motivations, and nefarious double-crossings bog down what could have been the season’s most bloody good time (emphasis on the bloody).
Again: Let’s just get back to the garroting, OK? Isn’t that what the holidays are really about?
Universal Pictures will release “Violent Night” in theaters on Friday, December 2.