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Violent Night Will Make You Believe It Could Have Been a Better Movie
Bad Santa movies shouldn't feel like punishment.
Allen Fraser/Universal Pictures
Rating: 5/10 stars
“Die Hard, but with Santa Claus” is a fairly amusing pitch for a film. You can imagine it as an irreverent and/or goofy ramshackle indie production with lots of high spirits and low urges, something to remember as a camp classic ten years down the line.
Unfortunately, that camp classic to be is not the movie we’ve been given. Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller and director Tommy Wirkola manage only moments of adequacy before stumbling shame-facedly back to Hollywood tropes they should be dodging around or bonking on the head with fruitcake.
Same Old Sad Christmas Magic
The biggest problem with the movie is the plot. A movie like this shouldn’t really have a plot. It should just be one nonsense set piece after another, like the wonderful low budget 2001 tour de force, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Or, alternatively, it could be just one awesome fight scene after another, like this year’s The Princess. It’s a vengeful Santa movie. Why would you try to make that make sense?
Violent Night doesn’t really have an answer, but it sets the choo-choo train wheels of narrative grinding and spinning around the toy track anyway. The real, no-fooling, Christmas-magic-toting Santa Claus (David Harbour) is disillusioned with Christmas because kids are too greedy and no one has the holiday spirit anymore. He heads out for one more Christmas Eve, though, and ends up in the home of the wealthy, profane Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo) just as she is being robbed by “Mr. Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) and his gang of greedy thugs.
Among the family guests for Christmas are Gertrude’s nice-guy son Jason (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their pure of heart daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). Jason and Linda are there to chuck a completely unnecessary romance plot on the fake fireplace. Trudy is there to be cute—which she manages adeptly.
To be fair, the bashing in of bad guy skulls is done with a fair bit of style as well. The fight scenes are witty and well-choreographed. Everybody involved is admirably dedicated to turning every possible Christmas touchstone into a deadly weapon. There’s a Christmas star to the eye, sharpened candy canes to the neck, decapitation with ice skate, and a lot of garroting with lights. Trudy, a fan of Home Alone, gets a very entertaining Warner-Bros.-but-with-lots-of-blood slapstick scene with booby traps, glue, nails through various body parts, and general mayhem.
But just when you’re setting in to giggle and enjoy Viking-warrior Santa and his magic bag of toys-turned-murderous, you’re back to a long monologue of the villain explaining his tragic experience with Christmas past. Or to Santa talking about his failed relationship with Mrs. Claus. Or Trudy wishing as her Christmas wish that her parents would get back together. Or Trudy reminding Santa of the true meaning of Christmas. The Christmas magic on sale has the stale smell of reverence and a sad, painted on smile.
Crush the Christmas Spirit
If the evocation of Christmas movies past were satire or over-the-top parody, it could work. But mostly the tropes seem like they’re there to be the tropes. You’re supposed to cheer when Santa self-actualizes, or when the romance finds its arc, or when people say they believe in Santa Claus.
All of which is, frankly, baffling. Who is coming to the Santa murder movie to see a nuclear family happily reunited? Is there really a huge audience of folks who want to watch St. Nick wreak bloody vengeance and also want to be assured at the same time that Christmas is truly a heartwarming holiday that brings out the best in all of us?
The decision to have Santa save a bunch of wealthy jerks is also inexplicable. Initially I was hoping it might be a murder-the-rich riff along the lines of the delightfully vicious Ready or Not, in which a new bride slaughters her in-laws while wearing her wedding dress.
But alas, the Christmas message here is that the uber-wealthy can come together as a family to defend their immorally acquired immense wealth. Santa spends the whole movie fighting for the equivalent of Elon Musk, while loyal servants are tossed aside as cannon fodder with barely a shrug. Santa was worried that Christmas was too commercialized, so the script teaches him that true righteousness lies in becoming a guard dog for capitalists.
Not to say that the movie is actually a conscious defense of the honor of the wealthy, or of Christmas materialism. Maybe it would be better if it was; at least that would feel like a commitment. As it is, the movie keeps claiming to be obsessed with the power of belief, even as it refuses to commit to its own bit. It’s hard to argue that the world needs an angry-Kris-Kringle-with-a-bloody-hammer movie. But as long as that Kris Kringle is going to exist, he deserves a better Christmas eve than this.
Originally published December 2022
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