Violent Night, 2022.
Directed by Tommy Wirkola.
Starring David Harbour, Beverly D’Angelo, John Leguizamo, Cam Gigandet, Edi Patterson, Brendan Fletcher, Alex Hassell, Mike Dopud, Alexis Louder, Mitra Suri, Stephanie Sy, Alexander Elliot, John B. Lowe, André Eriksen, Leah Brady, and Erik Athavale.
When a group of mercenaries attacks the estate of a wealthy family, Santa Claus must step in to save the day (and Christmas).
Violent Night has been heavily marketed as from the team that brought moviegoers John Wick (David Leitch is one of many producers), which director Tommy Wirkola (who previously attempted to rewrite a children’s fable into R-rated splatter- action with Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) and screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller (most recently known for penning the Sonic the Hedgehog adaptations) is sticking by that formula a little too closely, under the impression that what works for Keanu Reeves or Bob Odenkirk (Nobody) will work for David Harbour as a lethal Santa Claus with a rushed and pointless backstory explaining that proficiency in brutality that he has currently repressed in favor of delivering well-behaved kids the presents every Christmas.
In particular, screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller have a trend of getting lost in what doesn’t work for the story they are telling (Sonic the Hedgehog 2 shifting to a wedding for human characters that lasts an unforgivable amount of time without any laughs). Here, they do not realize that their best asset is, to be blunt and frank, an ass-kicking, hammer-wielding Santa Claus sick of what Christmas has become (not necessarily how rotten kids these days are and families missing the point of Christmas, but also the lack of imagination for the gifts children request).
The filmmakers appear to think that Violent Night should thread that needle between bloody fun and wholesome storytelling involving a young girl Trudy (Leah Brady, totally sincere and innocent of the movie’s faults), wishing for Santa Claus to mend the relationship between her estranged-but-together-for-Christmas parents Jason and Linda (Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder, respectively). It’s a touching request that just might be enough to get Santa Claus off a drunken bender while dropping off gifts and puking on civilians from above in his sleigh. But what’s confounding is that a conscious choice has been made to compose the rest of this family as rich and unlikable elites that the script unevenly can’t decide if we should actively root for them to suffer during the ensuing hostage situation or find some sympathy (and this includes a crash teenage boy introduced as receiving sexual harassment complaints at his school).
Anyway, a team of mercenaries using Christmas-themed codenames led by John Leguizamo’s Scrooge shows up at the private estate, looking to break into matriarch Gertrude’s highly secure safe consisting of $3,000,000. Beverly D’Angelo plays the morally compromised, nasty, and filthy wealthy politician as we try to pinpoint the lesser of two evils. Trudy contacts Santa Claus through a walkie-talkie, doling out rescue advice while all the other family hostages assume she’s playing make-believe. Those individuals include a dimwitted B-movie actor with good looks (Cam Gigandet) and his shallow wife Alva (Edi Patterson), raising their previously mentioned problem child (Alexander Elliot). Scrooge’s faction also consists of an assortment of mildly memorable psychopaths taking glee in terrorizing the family.
The core problem is that Violent Night comfortably spends way too much time building heart between Santa Claus and Trudy at the expense of delivering consistently thrilling set-pieces. Of all the action flicks produced under David Leitch, a movie about Santa Claus saving Christmas by bludgeoning armed and generic henchmen to death doesn’t need to take an entire act interrogating the life and decisions that have led the character to this point in life. The brief flashbacks to medieval times especially feel random and empty. It’s never necessarily unwatchable but has its sluggish moments.
There’s also “Christmas magic” with rules that Santa Claus admits to not understanding (which comes across as an admission of laziness on behalf of the screenwriters), although teleportation through chimneys comes across as slightly clever and imaginative. That’s without getting into how forced the jokes (bandaging a wound with Christmas paper is puzzlingly dumb and not funny) and one-liners are (which often feel like it was written by the annoying jerk teenage boy.
Barbaric Christmas mayhem eventually erupts, comprised of everything from sled chases, storage room brawls, nativity scene destruction, and pleasantly sadistic kills. If anything, the most shocking and cheer-worthy death comes from one of Trudy’s Home Alone-inspired traps, proving that the second act didn’t need to be 30-40 minutes of these two bonding over their life issues. The bonding part is fine and could come with a side helping us bone-breaking and face-smashing.
Somehow, Violent Night doesn’t commit to the violent part, except until raucous blood-splattered chaos arrives too late, like a belated Christmas gift. Even David Harbour looks lost like a sleigh without Rudolph until the action kicks into high gear, saddled with rough and corny comedy while also getting kicked around and contemplating life. A better film would get to the point of decking the halls red.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]