"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Violent Night

When I first heard that the trusted manufacturers of sturdy action cinema at 87North Productions were making a Santa Claus movie, I misunderstood. I pictured sort of a BAD SANTA meets DIE HARD – a serious action movie where it’s some deadbeat mall Santa who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and has to save the day, hopefully using a velvet sack’s worth of seasonally themed methods.

So when I realized that the Santa Claus played by David Harbour (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) in VIOLENT NIGHT is the actual Santa Claus, having his Christmas Eve deliveries interrupted by hostage takers and using “Christmas magic” to fight back, I was disappointed at first. Sounded corny, I thought.

I was wrong. I want to apologize to Santa. VIOLENT NIGHT is an admirable and solid take on a type of movie I treasure: the genre mash-up that knows it’s ludicrous to combine these particular types of movies but moves forward trying to deliver on both genres as well as the unique opportunities offered by their combination. So it has the trappings of a DIE HARD/UNDER SIEGE scenario (ruthless mastermind, elite mercenary force, carefully planned heist, hero mixed up in it by mistake, shocking deaths of innocent people, bad guys picked off one-by-one with stolen or improvised weapons) but also a heartwarming holiday tale (little girl wavering in her belief in Santa, family having trouble getting along, lessons about selflessness). It’s a comedy, but not a spoof. It tries to deliver faithfully on the mission of each genre.

It begins, like BAD SANTA, with its Santa at a bar, drinking away the pain. Or drinking on top of the pain. But like I said, this is the real Santa. He worries that modern kids are mindless, materialistic consumers and thinks he might hang it up after this year. But when he drops through one of the many chimneys in the remote and sprawling Lightstone family estate, and stops to enjoy some 1938 brandy with his cookie, he hears gunshots, and the reindeer get scared and abandon him. So, like John McClane, he’s stuck in another part of the building while the hostage situation is going on.

Poster for 2022 film VIOLENT NIGHT from director Tommy Wirkola.Before all that we meet bumbling dad Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH), who looks straight out of a Hallmark movie. He’s convinced his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder, who was great in COPSHOP last year) to come with him and his daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) for Christmas with his rich asshole family. His sister Alva (Edi Patterson, KNIVES OUT), her rising action star boyfriend Morgan Steel (Cam Gigandet, NEVER BACK DOWN, PANDORUM, PRIEST, IN THE BLOOD, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, WITHOUT REMORSE) and her douchebag livestreamer son Bert (Alexander Elliot, The Hardy Boys) are trying to kiss the ass of ballbusting Lightstone matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo, EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE) in hopes of inheriting the business, and are confused that Jason and his family aren’t.

Since we know the DIE-HARD-on-a-_____ format we know that the cold stares of the Christmas party catering staff mean they’re soldiers in disguise. And that’s nice because it gives them holiday-themed outfits along with their code names. The most notable are the hulking Gingerbread (Andre Eriksen, DRAGONHEART: BATTLE FOR THE HEARTFIRE), the sadistic Krampus (Brendan Fletcher, FREDDY VS. JASON, GINGER SNAPS 2, THE REVENANT, BRAVEN) and Candy Cane (Mitra Suri, “Bus Passenger,” SHAZAM!), whose look I think is meant to invoke Katya from DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE. (There are also some white-camo soldiers on snowmobiles like in DIE HARD 2.) John Leguizamo graduates from being a henchman in DIE HARD 2 (and grunt in EXECUTIVE DECISION) to lead villain, using the code name “Scrooge” and later revealing that he does in fact hate Christmas. (SPOILER: He does not end up getting the time to change like Scrooge or the Grinch.)

At first Santa doesn’t want to get involved, but Tinsel (Phong Giang, THE PROTEGE) spots him by the tree, assumes he’s just some guy dressed as Santa, and tries to bring him to where the other hostages are. Santa defends himself in brutal hard-R fashion and though he never gets a “Just how badass is he?” speech he has the equivalent of a military background (his now-regretted days as a hammer-wielding viking warrior). The second unit director/stunt coordinator is Jonathan “Jojo” Eusebio, who did BIRDS OF PREY and KATE and was fight coordinator for all the JOHN WICK movies. I think some of the action here is shot closer and darker than I prefer, but it always has that 87Eleven variety and inventiveness, plus good storytelling. Example: when Santa contemplates jumping out the window there’s a shot look down to show that it’s too far down, and we see an icicle-shaped decoration down there. Later he knocks Tinsel out the same window and then finds him impaled on that.

When I watch Christmas horror movies I appreciate the ones that go out of their way to use holiday-themed gimmicks in the deaths (see: BLACK X-MAS, SANTA’S SLAY). VIOLENT NIGHT’s action definitely gets high points in that department. Christmas lights and tinsel are used for strangulation, ornaments are used for stabbing, a star-shaped tree-topper impales an eye, he sucks on a candy cane and stabs with it once it’s sharp. The bad guys also get in on the festivities, using Grandma’s nutcrackers as torture devices. Santa powers are also used for action purposes: pulling presents out of his magic bag hoping to find one that works as a weapon, using his enchanted “Naughty List” scroll to get the names of the mercenaries, and I won’t give away how he kills Scrooge, but it’s about the funniest only-Santa-could-do-it idea possible. And perhaps those concerned about “the War on Christmas” will be happy that there is a Nativity scene prominently featured in the movie. (Somebody’s head is bashed in with the baby Jesus statue.)

In a particularly inspired nod to another Christmas movie, there’s a great scene where Trudy builds HOME-ALONE-inspired boobytraps that prove to be much more grievously effective than Kevin McAllister’s. The only thing funnier than setting such heinous bodily mutilations to Dominic Lewis (BULLET TRAIN)’s wacky comical orchestrations is the pitch-perfect saccharine innocence of Trudy telling Santa “I made booby traps like in the movie. It was SO funny!”

But the scene where I truly had to nod my head in respect is the one where Santa does self-surgery on a wound and seals it using wrapping supplies. Okay, they know what they’re doing.

It’s a good use of Harbour, taking advantage of that grumpy lovable guy thing he does so well, and letting him have a Santa belly but be burly (and tatted up) – outmatched, but believably capable in the fights. I guess they cut most of the one-liners in the script because he didn’t like doing them, but he makes up for it by finding organic ways of working “ho ho ho” into different types of laughter.

Santa has a funny unfrozen-caveman side to him (he calls machine guns “gizmos” a couple times) that goes along well with the idea that he’s this reformed barbarian forced to dip back into his old sins. So even though he’s Santa Claus he works as the grouch whose gruff exterior is cracked by a sweet little girl believing in him and needing his help.

The script is by Pat Casey & Josh Miller, writers of the DORM DAZE and SONIC THE HEDGEHOG movies, but I know of them from the podcast The Best Movies Never Made, so I’m happy to now have seen one of their movies and enjoyed it. The director is Tommy Wirkola (KILL BULJO, DEAD SNOW). I guess it’s time I finally watch his movies WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY (because I always like Noomi Rapace joints and that has multiple Noomis) and HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (which is also kind of an absurd genre combo, from the sounds of it).

 

P.S. Since I’ve seen Harbour be self-deprecating about his 2019 HELLBOY movie on this press tour I want to stand up for that one. You gotta accept that it’s not trying to be the Del Toro movies – it’s less magical, more rowdy, more in the vein of 2000s CG-driven studio b-movies of the Milla Jovovich variety. And admittedly Harbour’s makeup doesn’t look nearly as good as Perlman’s. But if you can get over that it might just win you over like it did me. It’s funny, it has a ton of good monsters, it’s honestly more like the comic books, where Hellboy is not some secret MEN IN BLACK dude, but just a demon who people don’t have a problem with walking around. And yes, Jovovich gets to play a fun villainess.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 12th, 2022 at 7:14 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Comedy/Laffs, Fantasy/Swords. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Violent Night”

  1. Enjoyed this one quite a bit; perfect tone, good creative violence, good use of Harbour and love to see Leguizamo finally graduate to Hans Gruber. Can’t help feeling there was a classic 90-minute movie trapped somewhere in this 112 minute movie.

    Also, what’s up with the horrible rich people family getting a heartwarming happy ending, while their poor put-upon staff (including one guy who specifically asked for Christmas Eve off and was denied) all get brutally murdered and are immediately forgotten about? One place where the movie leans a little too hard into its sweetheart Christmas-movie side IMHO. And strange that Santa himself is specifically set up as a naughty soul who eventually changed for the better, but I guess these villains all just need to be murdered, even after they’re no longer posing a threat to the family?

  2. To my suprise, I disliked this a great deal, mostly because of the lazy direction. Hard to mess up such a concept, but poor staging, and non-existing attention to detail seemed to do the trick. The Home Alone-scene was the moment I just gave up on the film, the task of a director can’t be clearer than in such a sequence. Here we have i bunch of bowling balls skipping towards a hatch. The first and the last hits the guy under the hatch, but the rest of them diappear into thin air. When you set up these traps, you show the payoff. All of it. Wirkola seems to enjoy the shots with gore in them, but pays no attention whatsoever to the shots before and after. Not that I actually remember, but I guess even Raja Gosnell does shit like this better. And ceratinly Chris Columbus. And these are hardly top notch filmmakers I’m comparing with!

    Glad someone enjoys it though! And I did like Harbour as Santa. After this and the only slightly better Bullet Train, I have no goodwill left for 87North Productions.

  3. I had a similar reaction to Mr. Subtlety, but to such an extent that it borderline ruined the movie for me. The family were so horrible, so obviously undeserving of their wealth or status, that I was sure there was a narrative swerve coming where Santa would give those backstabbing assholes what they were due. The movie established that the $300 million was straight up embezzled from the US government; there’s no way they weren’t all on the naughty list. (Barring Trudy and her mom.) That the story never even addressed it says to me they knew it was an issue but just hoped we would forget.

    I’d be curious to know if the theatrical ending with the family in the forest was a result of test screenings; some aspects of the direction, like the dark, featureless backgrounds and the use of medium to tight closeups suggest second unit footage, or reshoots done on the the cheap. There’s also the matter that the movie clearly set up the kids at the beginning asking for cash for Christmas, and Santa gets involved with a rush family who has money via criminal activity… I thought the ending they were setting up was Santa taking the cash (or, if you’re going the redemption route, the family giving it to him) and his distributing it to the children of the world.

  4. I’m personally glad they movie didn’t get too preachy or pointed about the family’s privilege and just used them for humour and a more traditional “Christmas brings families together/redeems people” thing. From the trailer (which excluded the family apart from the dad, mother and Trudy) I was predicting the dad’s money was going to come from some dirty source and he’d get dropped at the end. Then when the movie established the family and there was an inside man, I was worried he was going to turn out to be the secret boss of the thieves, so instead the fact he’s just a guy who tries to be assertive in a bad way and turns it around is nice. You’re not going to beat KNIVES OUT, so I’d rather they didn’t try.

  5. I really liked this one. Those are some good points about the family getting a redemptive arc, but I guess when you’ve got genre conventions pulling in such disparate directions, there are always going to be some weird results. I was also expecting it to go on a warmer, slightly redemptive note with Leguizamo, but honestly as Vern says, his fate is so good I wouldn’t be able to complain about it.
    The action… yeah, it’s pretty bad, especially given the production company – but again as our host says, the writing saves it. There are so many Chekhov’s *s in this film. (And I should say that the first sonic film at least is way better than it has any right to be, for what it is.)
    Glad to see a Wirkola project go this well. As I said elsewhere, now I’m really excited for Jalmari Helander’s Sisu – and possibly Roar Uthaug’s Troll, too. Good season for scandinavian directors.

  6. I’m relieved to see this get a good review. I enjoyed it immensely but would not deny that it’s maybe a bit middle-of-the-road.

    I think that’s part of what makes the movie work though. Personally I thought it would’ve been weirder and wackier if this was a traditional wholesome Santa in the wrong place at the wrong time. But treating the joke premise with a straight face, and making it a regular mid-budget action movie in the NOBODY / JOHN WICK tradition – complete with a violent past for our pacifist hero to draw upon in the moment – is arguably both funnier and more dramatic.

    I’ve read some reviews that either thought the movie didn’t go far enough with its premise, or conversely were offended by the apparent cynicism of the premise and couldn’t accept the sappy emotional moments within it. But personally I loved that it took the ridiculous premise seriously, and the emotional moments actually did tug at the heartstrings for me, perhaps because they felt more earned in this misanthropic context.

    Mr Majestyk, it’s official. You have to go see this movie now.

  7. What Happened to Monday’s cool. Hope you like it.

  8. Pretty awful movie saved by Harbour’s humorous Santa moments. He’s funny. But way too much exposition, too much talking, mismatched cast, and some broken logic (like it Santa is actually real and actually delivering presents, how do parents account for this gifts? Why don’t they believe in Santa?). Awful movie. CGI blood. Violence that sometimes we see and sometimes they cut away from for no real reason. And if Santa is a hammer Viking lord warrior then why is he scared at all ever? Awful.

  9. Vern, of course i recommend WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY to get your fill of both Wirkola and Rapace. But I think you will have more fun with Wirkola’s THE TRIP, which also stars Rapace. And Aksel Hennie, who’s on bad guy duty in Jalmari Helander’s upcoming SISU. Uthaug’s TROLL is also fun.

  10. Curt: I saw it yesterday. It was enjoyable. I agree that the action was almost there: inventive but shot a little too close to really sell it. I’m glad Harbour nixed the one-liners. The few that remained were borderline but he managed to sell them. Bad guys were great. Colorful and kind of dumb, the way I like my goons. Cool to see Leguizamo graduate to Big Boss after all these years. And he gets an all-timer finishing move. Good for him. I saw a lot of DIE HARD 2 references in this thing, so I’m assuming Wirkola is a Renny Harlin fan (and who isn’t?).

    My main concern, as mentioned by others, is that the movie’s too soft on the rich assholes. They burn $500,000, a drop in the bucket to them, say, “Yeah, whatever, we believe in Santa, I guess” and all is forgiven? Nah. These people are the scum of the earth and they needed to pay. (Or at least get royally chewed out by Santa.) I feel similarly about the assholes in KRAMPUS, which ruined that movie for me, so this is a recurring theme for me and Christmas movie counter-programming. If you’re gonna do it, do it. Don’t wimp out on me at the end.

  11. I wouldn’t have such a problem with the horrible rich family having a happy ending if every poor person in the movie didn’t get horribly killed and immediately forgotten about. The nice gate guard gets murdered because they wouldn’t give him Christmas Eve off, and nobody spares a single thought for him and his family. And Mr. Scrooge’s backstory about becoming a villain because his poverty-stricken family couldn’t afford a nice Christmas sits very awkwardly next to the backstory of this thieving rich family who can have everything anyone could ever want, and are awful people anyway.* It didn’t ruin the movie for me or anything, but they really shouldn’t bring this stuff up if they’re not interested in delivering on it.

    * Particularly given that we learn that Santa himself used to be an even worse person than Mr. Scrooge, I was kinda hoping Leguizamo would get some kind of redemption. I particularly thought it might be a kind of SANTA CLAUSE thing, where if you kill Santa you have to become him. I almost wonder if that was the original idea, given that, as someone else pointed out, the end has strong “reshoots” vibes. The chimney gag is good enough that I can’t really complain, though.

  12. You guys have me thinking this will not stand up to a rewatch! But maybe they’ll all get it in VIOLENTER NIGHT.

  13. I’ve been considering going to see it again, so I personally think a rewatch would be worth the risk.

    Movies (and stories in general) have long favored characters who have power and agency (whether from socioeconomic status, physical ability, or personal drive), not out of intentional classism but because it’s more dramatic. Stories about leaders and royalty seem to outnumber stories about servants, and the latter tend to be about the personal quest to escape that servitude and enjoy a better life.

    I think it’s reasonable and valid to question these conventions, and to acknowledge when movies and TV shows are making class assumptions that are not relatable to the target audience (like having a reporter live in a big penthouse, etc).

    Sometimes I am bothered by a movie’s apparent lack of empathy for less empowered characters (such as the mutilated cop in RESERVOIR DOGS or the massacred security guards in the first MATRIX). But most of the time these issues are not a deal breaker for me. Genre traditions and dramatic effectiveness tend to be more valuable to me than class consciousness.

    Other viewers have every right to feel differently. It’s possible, however, that certain genres which don’t share their priorities might simply not be for them.

    And I think that being too strict about such things means throwing a lot of babies out with the bathwater. Is DIE HARD “problematic” because by the end of the movie we’re supposed to have forgotten the deaths of Mr Takagi and of the nameless front-desk security guard? Should we be mad at Star Trek and Star Wars stories because they show fancy funerals for the characters we’ve gotten to know, but not for shorter-lived supporting characters? Is it wrong to enjoy stories in which the protagonists are empowered with strength and abilities, plus the training and authority to use them?

    By watching VIOLENT NIGHT we are already signing on to the idea of empathizing with a character who has magical powers including omniscience and immortality, who has superior fighting ability and a sweet ride, and who as far as we know only works one day of the year, yet despite all these advantages is still alienated and unhappy. (And who, in his past, seems to have more blood on his hands than any of the villains.) If all that’s ok then I’d say it’s also ok for the movie to devote more of its screen time to entertainingly obnoxious rich characters than to redshirts.

    To me it seems odd to accept the transgressive central conceit of this movie yet also be offended that its class politics aren’t completely PC or that minor characters get killed by the villains just as they do in countless other stories that involve action and violence.

    These are highfalutin thoughts about an R-rated Santa Claus action-comedy. I think a smarter and edgier movie could’ve been made with this premise, but I also think the movie we actually got was fun.

  14. Point of order: Mr. Subtlety criticizes Santa attacking the robbers after the family is out of danger, but I also see criticism of the servants and security guards killed by the robbers being ignored.

    Could we not assume Santa is out to punish the robbers for the lives they’ve already taken, not simply protect the rich family from harm?

    I don’t know, if the ending involved the robbers getting away in some form, then I could see an injustice in the treatment of the servants, but the robbers did pay for harming them, so–

  15. Are we really LACKING in “overly rich and privileged people are assholes” messages in movies and TV though right now? Does it not get a bit numbing and dead horse tropey to keep doing it, especially in a window of time that that also has films like THE MENU (also featuring Leguizamo) and GLASS ONION doing the same thing? Is it not therefore okay in this instance for the patently ludicrous Santa Claus action movie to perhaps just focus more on the escapism and entertainment value and not be so concerned with reminding the audience of that horrible real world shit they maybe want to get away from for a couple of hours?
    I’ll also point out that Trudy is depicted as actually being compassionate and considerate and kind enough that she doesn’t hate her relatives despite their obvious faults and seems to genuinely like her grandmother (for some reason), so I dunno how you’d swing them getting horrible stuff happening to them at the end and squaring it with her general vibe. Not to mention I’d like to imagine these events might actually make them change a bit, if for no other reason than them personally having the existence of some cosmic force in the world that monitors and judges people’s moral worth confirmed and possibly scaring them straight.

  16. @Curt

    I think the difference between Violent Night and something like Die Hard is that in Die Hard the villains are coded as upper class – fancy suits, exotic foreign accents, and a bent for literary quotation – while their victims and the hero are of lower status. So by the moral logic of a middle class audience, that makes it “okay” for middle class employees to be their victims, and for a blue collar type cop to come in and kick ass.

    In comparison, the family in Violent Night are almost cartoonish caricatures of the middle classes’ view of the rich. Which would be fine with they were the bad guy but they’re not. As Mr. Subtlety alluded to, the filmmakers didn’t have to make them so astoundingly awful. They could have been nice, decent people who just happened to be rich. But the writers and director didn’t make that choice, they made a choice that (for some of us) puts the unfairness of the situation in the spotlight.

    The thing about both action movies and Christmas movies is that at their best they tell us that the world is fundamentally fair, that magic can happen and both the decent, hardworking family man and the corrupt wealthy asshole will get what they respectively deserve. (Christmas movies generally having a more positive spin on what that deserving outcome is, when it comes to assholes.) I get what Violent Night was aiming for by welding together two different genre approaches to those ends, but I don’t think it quite worked.

  17. Gepard- I think the movie was just trying to make some funny asshole characters who’d be entertaining in their awfulness. It doesn’t have to be that deep. If they’d tried to do more with them, I’m sure they’d be seen as derivative of KNIVES OUT and the like.

  18. As every other meme on Facebook will tell you now we’re in the festive season, Charles Dicken’s gave us the definitive story in 1843. And the concept is that ghosts (or other menacing types) scare the rich to be nicer (and pay their employees correctly). Here they’ve thrown in a little bit of Krampus and severely built up the slap St. Nicholaus gave Arius in 325 AD, for good measure.

  19. I just want to clarify that I did enjoy the movie, which faithfully delivers the main thing I wanted from it (thinking of funny ways to kill people by playing off its funny central conceit). And I don’t think movies are, or should be, forced into neat little moral boxes. But the movie just doesn’t seem to follow through on its own established moral logic. The “lesson” the awful rich people learn at the end is… believe in Santa? The black-sheep son wins his mom’s respect at the end by… stealing?… which is exactly what Santa just murdered all those nasty home intruders over? Santa very explicitly posits his backstory as a tale of a murderer being redeemed, but then his arc is about becoming empowered to kill other murderers? He lovingly gets his murder weapon back as a show of support from his loving wife? What kind of character arc is that? The inevitable narrative logic here is that Santa gets his groove back by becoming a skull-smashing killer again, which just fits very oddly with his apparent regret over that part of his life, and the movie’s apparently sincere desire that we invest in this sweet family drama.*

    I appreciate that the movie treats its ludicrous premise seriously, but I do think it’s a bit uncomfortable to go out of your way to introduce some sticky moral issues, and then just handwave them away at the end and say “well, whatever, it’s an action movie!” I’m sorry movie, you brought this up! Nobody forced you to explicitly introduce themes of redemption and economic inequality. I wasn’t thinking about them until you told me to, and now you’re telling me to forget it?

    * I think it’s possible that this was written as an ironic, transgressive comedy, a la BAD SANTA. But the movie plays it straight, never quite pushing into the zone of over-the-line parody, and I see no reason to believe, from the way the movie presents it, that we’re meant to see it as ironically funny that everyone learns the wrong lessons. The closest it it comes is the sequence where a little kid joyfully creates a gory and ultimately lethal HOME ALONE rehash, but even so the way it plays on-screen makes it feel like we’re supposed to accept this on Action Movie terms, laughing with the little girl as she bumps off her adversaries, rather than humorously recoiling from the over-the-top, inappropriate sadism of it all.

  20. A few scenes after our ‘good dad’ human protagonist Jason got his finger broken in a nutcracker, I noticed him gesticulating wildly with his hand and that his finger was in no way bandaged or splinted or otherwise tended to. I started to mentally cry foul, but then I realized that this is not the kind of movie where that sort of thing matters. This is the sort of movie where the bad guy, apropos of absolutely nothing and to no one at all, utters aloud “Bah humbug, motherfucker!”. This is a bowling balls on a trampoline kinda movie. And while I am most definitely not a proponent of the ‘just turn your brain off’ mindset in any way, shape or form I still think you guys are overanalyzing this one just a little bit.

    It’s just fun. It’s a goof, a lark, a laugh. Enjoy it. Enjoy it like the kids in the back of my theater did last night. Chortle and point at the screen and go “Ahhhh!” when the ice skate separates that one goon’s head from his body and it goes sliding to the ground. That’s just what I walked out of the theater with.

    Anyway, when it was over I wanted to stand up, turn around and thank all the parents that brought their kids to this goofy, hyper-violent X-Mas movie. It warmed my heart to be reminded of being taken to see DIE HARD when I was eight years old, and to be let loose in the theater by myself when I wanted to see it again (my first solo R-Rated theater experience). The tradition lives!

  21. This has a tough needle to thread tonally, but I thought it pulled it off. The goofy, overscored and over-acted Christmas comedy smashes into the violent Die-Hard-meets-Nobody actioner. Harbour’s performance does a lot of heavy lifting to hold it all together.

    I agree that everybody learns the wrong lesson at the end. Maybe Santa should’ve replaced all their cash with coal, and then mean old Beverly D’Angelo could smirk and decide to pivot into selling fossil fuels.

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