“Violent Night” doesn’t have it in itself to be the best naughty Christmas movie ever made, so it tries to compensate by being every naughty Christmas movie ever made. Drunken, bitter Santa (played here by David Harbour)? That’s been done before, let’s say most notably by 2003’s “Bad Santa.” Murderous thieves taking hostages at Christmastime? 1988’s “Die Hard” and its many knockoffs. Kids setting bone-breaking makeshift booby traps for bad guys? 1990’s “Home Alone” (which yes, counts as a naughty Christmas movie, even if it was ostensibly for kids). Family hammering out drama during a hostage situation? 1994’s very funny Denis Leary comedy “The Ref.” Beverly D’Angelo? 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Even the whole idea of Santa Claus as an R-rated action movie hero was done better in 2020’s “Fatman.” “Violent Night” doesn’t pretend that it doesn’t owe much to its predecessors (it even checks “Home Alone” by name), but it wants you to believe that it’s somehow more than the sum of its parts. It isn’t, though there are some laughs to be had along the way.
Harbour’s Santa falls asleep from whisky and cookies while visiting the mansion of the wealthy Lightstone family. He awakens to learn that all the family’s servants and security have been killed and the family itself has been taken hostage by a team led by Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo), who is there to steal $300 million from matriarch Gertrude (D’Angelo). Worse, his reindeer have flown off, leaving him unable to make a getaway, and the bad guys are going from room to room, looking for expendables to eliminate. He tries to escape anyway, but then notices that youngest granddaughter Trudy (Leah Brady) is on the Nice list. She might be one of the Nicest kids in the world. Santa’s got his tell-all list, a sack of unending gifts, a history as a bloodthirsty Viking, and a few other goodies thanks to Christmas magic. He decides to stay and save the Lightstones’ lives as a Christmas present.
This sure as sugar cookies means violence toward the Naughty villains. Every Christmas-themed weapon imaginable is in play here: from icicles to tree ornaments to sharpened candy canes to snowblowers. And it’s not just Santa doing the killing, the Lightstone family members find it within themselves to fight back, even sweet little Trudy. The villains in this movie turn out to be infuriatingly easy opponents. They’re efficient gun-toting killing machines for about two minutes and for the rest of the movie they make those classic villain mistakes of talking too much and getting into fights where they forfeit the element of surprise. At least the villains in “Home Alone” were consistently inept, these guys are stupid when they’re supposed to be smart, which makes their stupidity all the more glaring.
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That’s not to say there isn’t a charm to “Violent Night.” David Harbour is great in the role of Santa, with some memorably funny lines and readings. D’Angelo is gloriously profane at times, Leguizamo sinks his teeth into the silliness, and Brady is naturally worth protecting. The action is funny and creative in small doses, but the movie gets greedy and goes on too long. It would have done well to stay in the Lightstone house instead of climaxing a snowmobile’s drive away at a location that hasn’t been established. There’s a lot of filler here, like Santa reckoning with his past, including the dissolution of his marriage. Mrs. Claus isn’t a character here, so that whole tangent is sadly pointless. That said, I’d be happy to see a sequel where we meet Mrs. Claus and get more of Harbour’s Santa. I’d wouldn’t mind spending more time with this character as long as the movie around him is tighter. I could see “Violent Night” doing well enough to spawn a franchise that becomes an annual tradition, even if the film misses the mark of becoming a Christmas classic.
“Violent Night” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references. Its running time is 112 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.