Violent Night review: Bad Santa meets Die Hard in new Christmas classic

David Harbour as Santa Claus in Violent Night.Universal Pictures

A new festive flick is heading to cinemas this year, one that combines elements of Bad Santa, Die Hard, and Home Alone. But while it’s wildly derivative – and at times shockingly sadistic – Violent Night is also sweetly sentimental, and the best Christmas movie released in years.

There’s a spoof trailer that plays at the start of 1988’s Scrooged, called The Night the Reindeer Died, in which a gun-toting Father Christmas battles a gang of criminals.

Violent Night is essentially that film brought to life, but rather than Lee Majors saving the day – as happens in the parody – here David Harbour plays Santa, and he’s ready to destroy any villain who makes the mistake of crossing his path. Or interrupting his milk and cookies.

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It’s Christmas by way of one of Hollywood’s top stunt team, so the action is fast and fierce, while the kills are brutal, and usually caused by a festive toy or decoration.

Yet in spite of that brutality, Violent Night is festive fun with a heart, managing to capture the spirit of Christmas, while at the same time bludgeoning it to death with season’s beatings.

Violent Night review: Santa Claus is Coming to Town

We first meet Harbour’s Santa on Christmas Eve at a pub in Bristol. Only it doesn’t look much like an English establishment, no one talks with a Bristolian accent, and he’s cracking nuts on the bar like you would in an American pub.

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Those quibbles aside, Santa’s plight is set up in this scene, as disillusioned by the planet being run on greed – and kids wanting only cash – he’s considering hanging up his sack.

The tone of the movie is also established here, as a decidedly drunk Santa heads up to the roof, flies off atop his sleigh, then pukes on the barmaid below – 34 Street’s Kris Kringle this is not.

But being December 24, Claus has a job to do, so soars from house-to-house delivering presents and downing milk and cookies, while constant cash requests from kids has him reaching for the hard stuff. Santa’s journey then takes him to the Lightstone Compound.

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Violent Night review: I’ll be Home for Christmas

The Lightstones are a ridiculously rich family, whose foul-mouthed matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) lives in America’s most secure private residence. One that conveniently has lots of chimneys.

As it’s Christmas, the family is visiting, and her daughter Alva (Evi Patterson, pretty much playing her Righteous Gemstones character) seems more interested in mom’s money than her love. Though admittedly the latter is in short supply. Alva’s son is an aspiring influencer being investigated for sexual harassment. While Alva’s boyfriend is a himbo actor whose toughest gig is pretending to be attracted to her.

Gertrude’s son is Skylar, and he’s got problems of his own, wanting to walk away from the family business, and the family itself. Largely because Gertrude came between him and his wife, which in turn has left his daughter Trudy distraught. So-much-so that when given a direct line to Santa – so she thinks – Trudy only asks for them to get back together.

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All of which makes the Lightstones a truly dysfunctional family for whom Christmas is already a disaster. And then the thieves arrive.

Violent Night review: Blue Christmas

Though dressed in jolly costumes, the shifty staff exchanging shady looks as they set up the Lightstone Christmas are anything but, as they’re really robbers, who all end up on Santa’s naughty list.

So while they might have cute codenames like Frosty, Sugar Plum, Peppermint, and Gingerbread, they are nevertheless willing to torture and kill to get what they want.

The group’s leader – played by John Leguizamo – goes by the codename Mr. Scrooge, and has a ridiculously depressing backstory that rivals the one revealed by Phoebe Cates in Gremlins.

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But he’s smart, and well prepared, while said story gives him serious motivation, so much so that when Scrooge states “Christmas dies tonight,” you very much believe him.

Violent Night review: Jingle Bell Rock

And so it’s on, with R-rated kills coming courtesy of snowballs, ice skates, sharpened candy canes, and nutcrackers. Indeed, testicle trauma plays a prominent role in the carnage, while everything that goes on or around a Christmas Tree becomes an instrument of death.

Having just watched Home Alone, Trudy follows the Kevin McAllister playbook. While Santa has skills of his own, as via flashback, we learn that this Nick was anything but saintly.

Though this is where Violent Night doesn’t quite hang together, the Home Alone homage so direct that it pulls you out of the movie, and Santa’s back story brushed by so fast that we don’t get a true sense of who he was, nor how he became who he is.

What does work are the additions writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller have made to the Santa myth. We won’t spoil them here, but what the pair have done with Santa’s sack and list will have you believing in the big guy. Which ultimately becomes a key theme of the film as the stakes are raised, and Christmas itself might fall.

Violent Night review score: 4/5

Director Tommy Wirkola previously turned the legend of Hansel and Gretel into a movie, and it didn’t work. Here he has a stab at Santa, and succeeds absolutely. There are times when Violent Night feels very much like the sum of its parts. But when those parts are Die Hard, Bad Santa, the beginning of Scrooged, and the ending of Elf, you’re stealing from the best.

The action is nasty for a Christmas movie, while the family stuff is sentimental for an action movie, but Wirkola ensures that everyone and everything is pulling in the same direction, so the film’s sudden tonal shifts are a strength rather than a weakness. While David Harbour is one of the great movie Santas, his Claus an irresistible mixture of humbug and cheer, who ensures that Violent Night is a true Christmas cracker.

Violent Night is in cinemas from December 2.