“Violent Night” is one of the Yuletide season’s most delightful surprises, not just for what it gets right but also for the many ways the whole production could have gone very, very wrong.
For starters, it’s a movie about Santa Claus, and for every “Miracle on 34th Street,” the history of Christmas movies is littered with tales of Saint Nick that could make a moviegoer hate the holiday. (“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” or “Santa Claus: The Movie” leap to mind.)
It’s also a film that demands to be taken seriously on its own merits even as it blatantly references other Christmas classics — first and foremost, “Die Hard” and “Home Alone” — and it dares to mix bloody, hard-R action violence with a sentimental subplot about a young girl’s unwavering belief in Santa Claus. That it gets away with all of this and stays gorily entertaining and witty throughout qualifies as some kind of cinematic Christmas miracle.
David Harbour stars as Santa, but not the Coca-Cola version; this Saint Nick is hard-drinking and fed up with the whole gig. People are greedy and ungrateful, all he delivers are video games, and the world’s diminishing belief in him is making his magic fade. The latter becomes a concern when he finds himself stuck in a hostage situation, only to discover that putting a finger aside his nose isn’t enough to get him back up the chimney.
This crime scene is unfolding in the lavish mansion belonging to Gertrude Lightstone (holiday-movie royalty Beverly D’Angelo), a tough-as-nails matriarch of a wealthy family that has gathered for yet another dysfunctional Christmas celebration. Joining Gertrude are her two children; daughter Alva (Edi Patterson, “The Righteous Gemstones”) will do or say anything in the hopeless pursuit of Gertrude’s favor, while son Jason (Alex Hassell, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop”) works for mom, even though it’s put a strain on his marriage to Linda (Alexis Louder, “The Tomorrow War”).
It’s Jason and Linda’s sweet daughter Trudy (Leah Brady, “The Umbrella Academy”) whose belief in Santa burns bright, and it will become a narrative necessity when Father Christmas finds himself facing down a master criminal, code name Scrooge (John Leguizamo): He’s taken the Lightstones hostage in the hopes of snagging a nine-figure payday (which Gertrude embezzled via government contracts) that’s sitting in the basement vault.
So yes, this is “Die Hard” in a house, with Père Noël himself stepping in for John McClane, but it’s to the credit of director Tommy Wirkola (“What Happened to Monday”) that “Violent Night” finds its own brand of thrilling mayhem and holiday-themed wisecracks, enough so that it steps out of the overwhelming shadow of Bruce Willis. Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller (the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movies) keep the action moving forward, but never at the expense of the characters, particularly the via-walkie-talkie relationship between Santa and Trudy.
Editor Jim Page (“The First Purge”) maintains a breathless but never frenetic pace, always making sure we know where all the characters are in relation to each other and allowing “Violent Night” to pause for comedic grace notes (Patterson’s a brilliant scene-stealer, as is Cam Gigandet as Alva’s vapid movie-star fiancé) and character backstories that never feel tossed off. Scrooge, you will not be surprised to learn, is no fan of Christmas, but Leguizamo sells the character’s tightly-coiled anti-holiday rage; he might not be Hans Gruber, but neither is he a hapless, sputtering Wet Bandit.
Brady finds the innocent charm in Trudy without resorting to weaponized child-star adorability, and she’s perfectly matched against Harbour, as he takes Santa from grumbling cynic to hard-hitting hero, bolstering the actor’s bona fides as one of this generation’s leading Action Dads.
By the time Trudy unleashes her Kevin McAllister–style traps on the bad guys, to graphically deadly results, “Violent Night” feels firmly planted in both the action and holiday pantheons. And unlike “Die Hard,” this is a film about which no one will ever ask, “Yeah, but is it really a Christmas movie?”
“Violent Night” opens in US theaters Dec. 2 via Universal Pictures.