Review: VIOLENT NIGHT, Die Hard With a Christmas Vengeance
On an event-free morning, afternoon, or possibly evening, longtime friends, high-school classmates, and screenwriting partners Pat Casey and Josh Miller (Sonic the Hedgehog I and II) turned to each other and simultaneously said: “What if Die Hard … but with a psycho Santa stepping in for Bruce Willis’ everyman cop, John McLane?”
They probably laughed, jotted down the idea, and saved it for a future writing project. The outcome of that particular day, Violent Night, takes that semi-clever premise, adds underused performer David Harbour (Stranger Things, Hellboy, Revolutionary Road) as the "real" Santa “Kris Kringle” Claus, and lets Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola, best known for cult favorite Dead Snow, a Nazi zombie gore-fest, to do his thing, alas to ever diminishing results.
When we first meet Harbour’s disheveled, unwashed Claus, he’s sitting in a nondescript bar, getting drunker by the moment, all while complaining about the holiday’s deep dive into crass commercialism and consumerism. And there’s Claus’s arc in a nutshell: After 1,100 years of delivering presents to deserving children around the world, Claus has lost his faith in the holiday, in the children who clamor for video games and cash, and, most importantly for purposes of Violent Night’s two-hour running time, in himself.
All of that has turned Claus into a pathetic shell of the rotund, jolly gift-giver we’ve all come to love and/or loathe. He’s also a barely functional alcoholic, a sloppy drunk who probably shouldn’t be riding around in a reindeer-led sleigh, let alone delivering gifts.
Soon enough, our Claus finds himself delivering Christmas gifts for the undeserving Lightstone family, one of the wealthiest families in the fictional America depicted in Violent Night. They’re also venal, selfish, and not particularly sympathetic, with the possible exception of Trudy (Leah Brady), the youngest member of the family and thanks to her caring, compassionate mother, Linda Matthews (Alexis Louder), a reasonably well balanced preteen who hasn’t yet lost the holiday spirit. For Christmas, she doesn’t want the latest electronic doodad or gizmo, only the reconciliation of her mother, a Lightstone by marriage only, and her father, Jason (Alex Hassell).
Despite Jason’s estrangement from Alexis, they decide to make a go of getting alone to get alone for the sake of their naive, innocent daughter, but Jason’s mother, Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), the CEO/Chairman of the family business, and her controlling, authoritarian ways threaten the prospects of any long-term reconciliation between Alexis and Jason. Gertrude’s other adult child, Alva (Edi Patterson), her social influencer wannabe son, Bert (Alexander Elliot), and Alva's shallow, self-absorbed actor-husband, Morgan Lightstone (Cam Gigandet), make for an unpleasant get together at the family compound.
And that’s all before a ruthless mercenary identifying himself only as Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo, sleepwalking through a role that all but demands major scenery-chewing) and his equally bloodthirsty gang invade the Lightstone estate, killing everyone unrelated directly to the family, holding everyone hostage while Scrooge’s goons attempt to find and remove stacks of cold, hard cash hidden around the wintry, isolated Lightstone McMansion.
That’s almost enough plot, not to mention characters, for a film without a Claus running around creating or participating in all kinds of splatter-filled mayhem. Claus could have easily chilled in a massage chair, enjoying vintage wine “borrowed” from the Lightstones, and taking a much-needed nap while the hostage situation resolved itself.
Alas, Claus gets caught in the search of the family compound, forcing him to dig deep into his pre-Kris Kringle past and let out his inner Viking psychopath. Gory, bloody mayhem follows as Claus takes on a virtual army of highly expendable, anonymous henchmen and henchwomen, usually in semi-well choreographed action sequences, some more original than others.
An early highlight centers on a one-on-one battle between Claus and a henchman in the family playroom. Every object becomes a possible offensive or defensive weapon. It’s almost as funny as it is a masterclass in practical makeup effects.
Unfortunately, little else in Violent Night matches that particular scene for imagination, energy, or sheer fun. Even a later scene involving an outmatched, outgunned, exhausted Claus that should count as a highlight quickly gets tiresome through repetition.
Only a scene involving Trudy’s desperate attempt to protect herself from a pair of clueless thugs comes close to the earlier fight scene in terms of getting audiences engaged and/or excited for the proceedings onscreen. Even there, though, it feels like nothing more than a modest riff on an overly familiar holiday film not named Die Hard or the commercially required follow-up, Die Hard 2.
Violent Night isn’t helped by slack pacing, unsympathetic, callous characters, or a puzzling theme that tries to give Claus renewed faith in himself and the holiday he represents while also siding with a capitalistic hierarchy of winners (the already wealthy elite) and losers (everyone else, including the mercenaries who fail to recognize the immutable nature of class). That alone will leave at least some audience members with a sour, bitter taste in their mouths.
Others in the audience, of course, won’t care, taking delight in a rage-filled psychopath in a Santa Claus who is finding a refreshed purpose in life by letting his inner Berserker come out and play, crush some skulls, and call it a Christmas Eve.
Violent Night opens Friday, December 2, only in movie theaters.
- Tommy Wirkola
- Pat Casey
- Josh Miller
- David Harbour
- John Leguizamo
- Alex Hassell