The idea of a nasty Christmas movie is nothing new, but “Violent Night” still manages to deliver the goods, mixing “Die Hard” and “Rambo”-style action with a fair amount of hokey ho-ho-hokum. David Harbour makes a particularly good cranky, butt-kicking Santa, in a movie that offers the sort of shared experience that should bring theaters some much-needed cheer.
Harbour’s Santa Claus is introduced getting liquored up between deliveries boozing it up in a London pub, clearly having lost his appetite for his appointed rounds. That jaundiced outlook explains why he indulges in a break that includes stopping to sip (OK, steal) some very expensive brandy while visiting a massive mansion in Connecticut, right before an elite team of armed thieves come in and take the family hostage.
Said family includes a pair of estranged parents (Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder) and their daughter (Leah Brady), who is still young enough to believe in Santa, and makes a point of noting that s he just watched “Home Alone” for the first time. Initially just forced to defend himself, Santa finds himself in an increasingly pitched and bloody battle against the naughty guys, led by a Christmas-hating mastermind who goes only by the codename Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo, matching Harbour’s hammy gusto).
Energetically assembled by Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola from a script by Pat Casey and Josh Miller, the movie hails from producers associated with among other things the “John Wick” and “Deadpool” series, and the connection shows. Still, pulling off that combination of over-the-top violence, goofy comedy and (in this case) Hallmark-style meaning-of-Christmas stuff is a pretty formidable challenge, and while the setting proves slightly claustrophobic, “Violent Night” mostly overcomes it.
Although elevated by “Stranger Things,” in a way Harbour’s gruff anti-hero in “Black Widow” provides the closest template for his performance here. In a savvy move, Santa might possess a few magical advantages – most of which he professes not to fully understand – but he’s far from invulnerable, certainly not enough to prevent his beard from getting bloodied.
The tonal shifts can become a bit jarring, and shedding a few minutes of cinematic fat certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Yet perhaps foremost, the movie feels calibrated to a theatrical experience in a way most of the prestige titles being released during this year-end window don’t, eliciting plenty of oohs, groans and laughter.
That might not be the formula for a fun-for-the-whole-family holiday perennial, but to its credit, those sitting through “Violent Night” should rarely stay silent for long.
“Violent Night” premieres December 2 in US theaters. It’s rated R.