‘Violent Night’ review: David Harbour is one cynical Santa

Sometimes the holiday season can be just a little too sweet. That’s why stories like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” endure or films like “Bad Santa Claus” are successful – not everyone wants to swallow sugar-sweet feelings at Christmas time.

Enter “Violent Night” in which David Harbor plays a murderous Santa Claus. Borrowing from “Die Hard” and “Home Alone” (both name checked) and using every holiday saying and pun, throw in some extra gory kills and voila: a holiday actioner for the gore-hounds. This is a star vehicle, or rather, a sleigh, built specifically for Harbour, who bravely embarks on the performance and is probably the only actor currently working in Hollywood who could pull this off. The result is amusing enough, but it’s as cinematically substantial as a sugar cookie.

Directed by Tommy Wirkola, who has experience filming winter wonderland horrors (“Dead Snow”) and ironically violent fairy tale updates (“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”), and written by Sonic the Hedgehog writers Patrick Casey and Josh Miller, “Violent Night” is cobbled together from the recognizable bits and pieces of other Christmas classics. References and riffs are fun, but on “Violent Night” we can see the mechanics cranking the gears like watching the math on the screen, eating away at the crazy fun that could have been here.

During the first act build-up we get to know our boozy Santa, who is full of holiday fatigue and cynical about the capitalist consumption of Christmas. After a stop at a pub in Brighton, England, he ends up on the premises of the wealthy Connecticut Lightstone family, a monstrous group of oil billionaires, with a sweet, Christmas-loving child, Trudy (Leah Brady). A group of holiday code-named criminals, led by “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo), infiltrate the Lightstone Christmas celebrations and take them all hostage with the intention of getting away with the $300 million in the basement until Santa and Trudy all go to John McClane and Kevin McCallister on it.

There are a few inspired moments, hard-hitting jokes, and Wirkola keeps the camera moving but constantly cuts from the action and the pacing drags, which is a bit odd for such a light sub-two-hour action film. They’re always waiting for things to get a little crazier and weirder, but there’s a wild element missing from this killer Santa Claus movie, which the numbers just makes it feel really good.

Perhaps it’s the need to preserve all that heartwarming stuff, even if it’s a little hard to buy, that a kid booby-trapping baddies manages to stay on the Nice List. Santa himself gets an interesting backstory, but there just isn’t enough of that. Harbor and Leguizamo are great together, especially when they’re arguing about the meaning or validity of Christmas.

Ironically enough for a tale about Santa getting tired of greed, Violent Night wants it all – the gore, the rude humor and the happy end of the holiday season about the true meaning of Christmas. Without committing to a tone, in the end everything cancels out. At least “Bad Santa” had the nerve to get really naughty. “Violent Night” tries to be both cheeky and nice, and as it turns out when it comes to those lists, it’s either one or the other.

Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.

‘Violent Night’

Rated: R, for heavy gory violence, consistent language, and some sexual innuendos

Duration: 1 hour, 41 minutes

To play: Begins Friday in general release

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-01/review-violent-night-wholly-night-not-so-calm-not-so-bright ‘Violent Night’ review: David Harbour is one cynical Santa

Sarah Ridley

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