Review: A lackluster script puts a damper on Violent Night’s Christmas Cheer



David Harbour stars as a gritty, homicidal Santa Claus in Tommy Wirkola’s latest thriller.

Though it feels like Halloween is barely in the rear view mirror, Christmas is a mere two weekends away – which means not just lower temperatures and higher stress, but also a flood of new Holiday-themed films at the box office. One of the first of this year’s batch is “Violent Night”, the David Harbour action vehicle that puts an (as the title implies) uber-violent twist on Santa. 

The brutality of the fight sequences and the creative use of Christmas motifs may set “Violent Night” apart from most conventional action fare. Still, the trite script and wobbly performances (outside of Harbour) make this festive flick a solid (and at times guffaw-worthy) home invasion movie, but a lackluster film overall.

Starring Harbour as a beefy, tatted-up, alcoholic, ex-viking reimagining of Santa Claus, “Violent Night” follows Santa on Christmas Eve as he mourns the modern lack of appreciation for Christmas and holiday traditions. While drunkenly making his present-delivering rounds, Santa’s night goes awry when he arrives at the sprawling home of the kindhearted young Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady). It’s then that he discovers that she and her relatives are being held hostage by a violent group of thieves intent on stealing her family fortune. Armed with an array of magic festive gadgets and a walkie-talkie to communicate with Trudy, Santa races to get her and her family out alive, dispatching the intruders in brutal fashion along the way. 

In “Violent Night’s” defense, it’s not as if the filmmakers set out to make a movie whose main focus is depth of character and strength of dialogue. The film is clearly just a means for bloody, Christmas-themed kills and David Harbour one liners. Granted, there are moments that hint to a self-awareness (bordering on parody) which lend the more inelegant aspects of the film’s script some leniency. “Violent Night” knows what kind of movie it is, and it isn’t particularly interested in putting too much thought into the non-Santa plotlines.

Admittedly, when you’ve got a leading man like  David Harbour, it’s easy to understand why the rest of the film is virtually built around him. Harbour delivers a vibrant, dry-humored, yet vulnerable (when he absolutely needs to be, at least) performance that makes Santa Claus an engaging hero. While the exact nature of the dilemma that’s driven Santa to drink feels vague and uninspired (what Christmas movie these days isn’t about how kids are on their screens too much?) Harbour’s natural charisma and likability goes a long way here, especially when it comes to his elevation of cliched dialogue.

Also remarkably effective is 10-year-old Leah Brady as Trudy, the sweet little girl who keeps in constant conversation with Santa via walkie-talkie as the film progresses. Brady has all the endearing qualities and none of the whiny droning that conventionally plague child characters in action films, and her “Home Alone”-inspired sequence in the last act is one of the film’s most memorable. 

On the subject of Trudy’s “Home Alone” antics, the true star of “Violent Night” (beyond the draw of Harbour, of course) are the film’s bloody, comedy-infused action sequences, which are as frequent as they are violent – that is, exceedingly. “Violent Night” takes full advantage of its R-rating, and many of the most memorable moments (which include a nail through the jaw from below and a tree-topper straight to the eye) do feel like something a particularly vengeful Kevin McAllister might’ve cooked up. 

Beyond Harbour and the action, though, “Violent Night” doesn’t have much to stand on, making most scenes without Harbour an arbitrary slog as we anticipate the next gruesome besmirchment of wholesome Christmas decor. Though you’ll leave disappointed if you’re on the hunt for fleshed-out characters or thoughtful dialogue, there’s enough charm from Harbour and creativity in kills to make for a bloody good time.