An Open Slay — Violent Night
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that does something rather daring, and outright tells the audience in no uncertain terms that what they’re about to see makes very little sense, and should therefore be viewed more casually. Probably the most famous recent example is Tenet, which laid out pretty succinctly that its underlying premise was going to be rather dense, and as such the film, through dialogue, invited viewers to turn off their brains for a little while and simply enjoy the spectacle. There were high-minded concepts at work, and those willing to watch a second or third time were paid off with a deeper understanding of Christopher Nolan’s puzzle box, but for everyone else, the flick gave them a rare degree of permission — or an outright request — to just relax and not concern themselves with the implications of what they were seeing.
The same can be said for Violent Night, a delightfully gratuitous and oftentimes hilarious exercise in ultraviolence with a Christmas backdrop. With a pithy wave of one’s hand and a nebulous reference to “Christmas magic,” the film wastes little time in telling you that this is meant to be nothing more than a bit of fun, a completely inessential serving of cinematic comfort food, which is oddly appropriate this time of year, as no matter what you celebrate, it’s good to just take a holiday once in a while. This particular passing fancy just happens to appeal to our more base instincts than most other entries we tend to get in December.
David Harbour stars as a real Santa Claus, one disillusioned with the materialism of the season, to the point that his annual rounds are more like someone who shows up to work drunk knowing they won’t get fired. He’s still a good person, and once in a while he gets a reminder that there are still some in this world worth helping, which is enough to sustain him, but that still doesn’t change the fact that he sees delivering gifts as a chore rather than an act of wonder.
One particular Christmas Eve, outside Greenwich, Connecticut, Santa’s ability to give a fuck is put to the ultimate test. Arriving at the palatial home of the wealthy Lightstone family, his stop is initially business as usual, though he eschews the usual cookies and milk for the top shelf liquor they have nearby. However, things take a sinister left turn pretty fast, as a team of mercenaries led by “Mr. Scrooge” (John Leguizamo; all of them have holiday-themed code names) has infiltrated the house, murdered all the staff, and is holding the clan hostage, demanding the $300 million in cash locked in the family vault.
Santa’s initial reaction is to get swiftly out of dodge, and for good reason. Pretty much the entire family would not be found on his “Nice” list. Matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo, having a blast in a role that would have surely gone to Jessica Walter were she still alive) is an elitist bitch on wheels. Daughter Alva (Edi Patterson) is an alcoholic kiss-ass looking for any angle to curry favor in hopes of inheriting the family business (think Succession, only there’s no illusions that we’re supposed to give a crap about any of these people), with poser action star boyfriend Morgan (Cam Gigandet) and wannabe influencer son Bert (short for “Bertrude,” as Alva named him after her mother in a cringeworthy attempt to become the favorite; he’s played by Alexander Elliot) in tow. On the other side of things is timid workaholic Jason (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder), and daughter Trudy (Leah Brady).
Trudy is the only one truly pure of heart in this ensemble, and her innocent yet furtive belief in Santa is the only thing that keeps jolly old St. Nick around. Well, that and his reindeer flying off and abandoning him at the first sign of trouble. Quickly accosted by the first of several cannon fodder minions, Santa’s ability to dispatch the mercs with flair, vigor, and deadly precision (think of something like Nobody, but without the unnecessarily lengthy setup to call his masculinity into question) turns into a personal mission to save Trudy and give her the one thing she wants this year, her family reunited.
Wearing its references to Home Alone and Die Hard on its sleeves, the movie has tons of fun turning baddies into chunks of viscera. It even lets the kid get in on the action to an insane degree, cheekily noting just how deadly Kevin McAllister’s traps should have been 30 years ago, were it not for all that warm fuzziness that John Hughes and Chris Columbus insisted on including (and before you jump down my throat, we’re talking about one of my favorite Xmas movies of all time here, I’m just poking fun). There are a lot of ripe avenues for comedy, from the choreography of the kills, to the asshole nature of the family, to Leguizamo playing something of a dual heel role, in that he’s not just the main villain, but he openly comments on Christmas and heist tropes, often feeling the need to prove himself the smartest person in the room, even though he’s surrounded by idiots. In another sign that we’re all supposed to just go with it and enjoy the ride, his nitpicking is just one more facet of his antagonism.
And in fairness, there are plenty of things to point out if that’s how you get your jollies (God knows I do). “Scrooge” has planned every aspect of this robbery/killing spree down to a tee, yet he never accounts for the behaviors of this family full of obviously shitty yet predictable people. When the second act twist is revealed, one has to wonder how it could have possibly been pulled off given the sheer number of Lightstone staff and protocols that would have had to have been navigated to make it happen. Santa has a completely superfluous backstory as a Viking to justify his murder boner that absolutely no one needed. The climax contains a fake out that violates even the minor flimsy rules this movie does establish. Even when we’re letting a lot slide for the sake of the joke, there are still plenty of trite elements.
And yet, where the film really catches you off guard is in the few moments where it has something meaningful to say in the holiday spirit. Trudy’s wish is so sugary that I needed an insulin shot in the theatre, but she is a character with whom we can all empathize. We all know that one kid who wanted something much more personal than a toy for Christmas (Santa constantly pulling video games out of his magical gift sack when looking for something he can use as a weapon is a great bit to offset the treacle), willing in their little heart to trade a material good for a more significant happiness. Similarly, every parent knows how awkward it can be to finally have “the talk” with their kids when it comes to Santa, and the movie plays that up really well
But the biggest surprise of all is the redemption of Santa himself. He’s sick of greedy, ungrateful kids who just want more and more, and certainly an entitled family of one-percenters isn’t going to help him alleviate that grudge. This is a man who has been jaded into cynicism too many times, and when “Scrooge” confronts him on why he doesn’t help out people who really need it, there’s a deep regret that it’s simply not his role in the grand scheme of things. A lot of movies on the subject, from Elf to The Santa Clause to Miracle on 34th Street always focus on the way people believe or don’t believe in Santa Claus and that so-called Christmas spirit. But where this one carves out its own special niche is that it really comes down to Santa being able to believe in people again. Thankfully the film doesn’t spend too much time on this, because I think the concept would fall apart if we kept calling back to it (I mean, he is killing a bunch of people here), but for the few moments that its used in service of allowing Father Christmas to care about saving the one “Nice” soul in a sea of “Naughty,” it’s shockingly effective.
If you come into this looking for a comedic splatterfest, you won’t be disappointed. Watching Santa lay the smack down on fools for nearly two hours never once gets old, and some of the gags are genius in how mental they can get, thanks to an incredibly game ensemble cast led by Harbour and Leguizamo. The fact that it can also sneakily make you feel something while that harshness is being dealt out makes this a holiday treat worth checking twice.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Christmas comedy? Should everyone who says “Hashtag Blessed” be sent to a labor camp? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on December 11, 2022.