I couldn’t help but think, while watching David Harbour as Santa Claus, that Violent Night might have started off as a meme or one of those random real-world fights that gets caught on the internet. It really is a spectacle to see a huge dude in a Santa robe just go to town on someone with ferocity. The visual juxtaposition of comforting, beloved Christmas energy and ultra-violence shocks and delights. Which is to say, if you asked me to watch a movie whose pitch is basically “Die Hard, but Santa” I would, without even letting you finish, say yes.
Now the questions that follow are: is it worth two hours of your time? And will it join the pantheon of Great Alternative Christmas Movies? (Okay, so I’m making up that there is a pantheon, but think, instead of the usual stuff you could watch with the whole family, you were making list that included Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Scrooged, and Gremlins).
Violent Night starts off relatively quietly. Harbour’s Santa at a bar, getting very drunk on Christmas Eve before he is set to deliver presents. And yeah, he is the real, magical Santa. As the movie reminds us quite frequently, he himself doesn’t understand the magic, so it’s them waving away any questions we might have or explanations we would want. He is magical. Deal with it.
The thing with this Santa is that he is done with Christmas. In a tirade that’s both trite and convincing in Harbour’s performance, he rails against the nonstop desire of modern children (and I suppose the modern world) to want, acquire, and then after possessing, move on to wanting the next thing. This is a disillusioned Santa who is tired of capitalist consumerism.
And of course, in true Christmas movie fashion, his losing the Christmas spirit will be challenged when he is confronted with a child, Trudy (Leah Brady), who is a true believer, and is pure of heart. Add on the typical Christmas/kiddie drama for a flick like this, which is her parents are estranged and her Christmas wish is for them to get back together.
Then we get to the last elements of this film: scene-chewing, mustache twirling John Leguizamo as this movie’s Hans Gruber. Turns out that Trudy’s family is super-rich and they become the target of Leguizamo’s squad of goons who decide to try to rob them during their family Christmas party.
Antics and violence ensue.
There really isn’t much to say about the story here. It doesn’t necessarily need to be groundbreaking; it just needs to provide a foundation (or in this case an excuse) for a bunch of action sequences starring Santa.
The thing is, Violent Night feels sort of like a pot luck where you’ve got a bunch of dishes that don’t feel like they were necessarily planned to be together. And if taken in that way, when you eat at a pot luck, you choose what you like and avoid putting the not-so-good stuff on your plate. Here though, if you want to get to a movie whose main dish is a panache for ultra-violence, you also kind of eat a few servings of bland and mediocre attempts at family/holiday drama.
The whole first act, running around half an hour, turns out to be quite a slog, setting up all the pieces and whatnot. It’s a lot of very trite family drama, and it really feels like it’s treading water. We’re just waiting for the point when the action starts. But once we get past it, it moves well enough.
When it’s smart, it’s tipping a hat to the ’80s action movies from which it owes so much. Then there are bits of, well, Home Alone slipped in. And surprisingly, those bits also work. Where it falters is when it makes attempts at the sentiments more often found in actual holiday specials (and to be fair, lots of those holiday specials also fall flat).
Another thing I couldn’t find a balance for was the humor. There were moments when I laughed out loud in the theater and really enjoyed myself. Often they were visual humor, some kind of absurdity, or something totally over-the-top crazy. Sometimes they were zingers and sharp lines. And some were just great performances or line deliveries, particularly from Harbour and Leguizamo. Harbour plays Santa with a gravitas that makes the whole thing even more absurd. And Leguizamo has some of the silliest, dumbest bits, and he pulls them off in a way a lesser actor could not. Those are the good humor bits. But too often, the humor defaults to the sort of ’90s-mid-00s Jackass/bro/juvenalia that seems to appear too often in a lot of Hollywood action these days; sure these jokes might’ve hit 15 years ago, but at least to me they are too tired.
So getting it out there, this is a horribly uneven movie. When it’s bad, it’s pretty cringe. But also, there’s a lot of “good bad” which is to say, bad parts that are so bad that they are good.
And there are parts that are very, very good. Especially if you do have a taste for action movies and almost cartoonishly over-the-top violence. Throw logic out the window and watch Harbour take damage, and dish it out in even more glorious fashion. There’s a joy in seeing the subversion of traditional holiday iconography and imagery employed for action.
Think how in modern action, it’s become a real feature for characters to try to use the items in their environment. Now all those items are holiday-themed. It’s a gold mine for action junkies who would want to see all these things creatively employed. Sure, by the end, Santa’s swinging around a giant frickin hammer and what does that have to do with Christmas? I don’t know, but I was into it. This is the film’s wheelhouse and where it feels most alive and exhibiting in creativity.
Violent Night probably won’t make my Great Alternative Movies top tier. That’s because there are all those holiday special bits that I would gladly fast forward through. However, the action sequences from it are memorable and incredibly fun and well worth the price of admission. If you take it as something silly and not meant to be taken seriously, there is a lot of fun to be had here. – Rappler.com
Violent Night is now showing in PH cinemas.