You know Violent Night is a Christmas movie because all the seasonal signifiers are in place: the snow, the tree, the fat man in the sleigh. Pretty quickly, though, as stabbings and shootings pile up, and some nasty throat-kicks and leg-crackings are mixed in, it becomes clear that this is definitely not your parents' kind of Christmas movie. It's brutal and bloody, and—there's no denying this—very funny, too. The Norwegian director, Tommy Wirkola, numbers among his past works a pair of wonderfully goofy Nazi-zombie horror comedies (Dead Snow 1 and 2). And the new film's production company, 87North, is operated by master stunt choreographer David Leitch, who among other things has worked on all three John Wick movies—which are also brutal and bloody, as you know, and kind of funny, too.
It's hard to imagine this picture working without David Harbour, who plays Santa Claus with a disheveled, world-weary sweetness. His character isn't just some cheesy shopping-mall Santa: He's the real deal, the man with all the toys. He's grown a little cynical over the centuries, and he's currently on the outs with his wife, Mrs. Claus (to whom he's been married for 1100 years). He's also developed a befuddling whiskey habit. But he's still on the job, still trying to believe—in himself and in the billions of kids around the world who clamor for his presents every year. (One recent pint-size petitioner asked only for cold, hard cash.)
The story begins on Christmas Eve, of course, at a big, gated estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, where the members of the fractious Lightstone family are preparing for their annual round of nonstop holiday bickering. On hand are the family matriarch, Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D'Angelo); her grown children Morgan (Cam Gigandet), Alva (Edi Patterson), and Jason (Alex Hassell); and Jason's estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their preteen daughter, Trudy (Leah Brady, a child of otherworldly cuteness). Also present, not that anyone cares, is Alva's son, a brat named Bert (Alexander Elliot).
Already this is a crowded house. But many other guests are also on the way. The first to arrive is Santa, who's coming straight from a bar, fully swozzled, and has already vomited over the side of his sleigh. Next on the scene, after shooting their way past the gates of the estate, is a gang of armed thieves led by a snarling hardcase named Jimmy (John Leguizamo), who has dubbed himself "Scrooge" for the night, because he plans to rob the Lightstones of the $300 million in cash they are reported to have stowed away in a basement vault. (Those who find this to be an improbable plot detail probably don't believe in Santa, either.) One of the many clever notions embedded in the story is that Santa already knows these bad guys—they're all longtime residents of his famous naughty-not-nice list.
The movie admits the obvious when, at one point, Trudy and Santa find themselves trapped in an attic and wondering what to do next. Trudy has the solution: "I can set off booby traps," she says, "like in Home Alone."
That 32-year-old kiddie-chaos classic was clearly a model for this movie, but there's a key difference between the two pictures. In Home Alone, when Kevin McCallister deploys an arsenal of pranks against the "Wet Bandits" who are trying to break into his family's house, the results are funny, in part, because none of the characters gets seriously injured. In Violent Night, people are mowed down in droves. (In one scene, Jimmy even machine-guns a Christmas tree.) One bad guy is gruesomely impaled, another beaten to death with a hammer, another taken out with a pointy tree ornament jammed into his eye. As in the Wick movies, all of this is rousingly staged. But after a while the walloping action begins to feel like a cutting contest between two children vying to out-shock their parents with anti-Christmas attitude. And then there's the overabundance of faux-edgy dialogue. "Bah, humbug, motherfuckers" isn't a top-drawer wisecrack. "Time for some season's beatings" is.