Violent Night' Belongs on the Naughty List

Violent Night' Belongs on the Naughty List

- By Nicolás Delgadillo

Jolly Old Saint Nick going full John Wick should be a lot more fun than this

It was a particularly cold and bleak night. December had just arrived and was apparently quite eager to let its presence be known. Here in the Southeast, that mainly just means wet and miserable weather filled with mud and dead leaves everywhere for days on end, as opposed to any kind of winter wonderland. I arrived at the movie theater to see Violent Night, a new Christmas-themed action flick starring Stranger Things icon David Harbour as a drunk ass-kicking Santa Claus. Seemed like a dumb but fun time as far these kinds of movies go. Less than a week ago, I thought something like this could become a new offbrand holiday classic. I should’ve heeded the warning signs.

The movie posters outside were torn and faded. The ticket kiosk at the front of the building was dim and abandoned. Once inside there was no one to check tickets, just an eerily quiet lobby and four employees likely bored to tears at the concession stand. One points to a little machine for me to scan my ticket but I doubt they’d care if I ransacked the place, much less walk into a movie for free. I’m a half hour late due to work and running into traffic on the way here, but as I walk into my screening I realize I had no reason to sweat it - the movie literally only just started. I love trailers, but a full thirty minutes of them before the thing you paid to come see even starts? Yeesh.

Some guy doodling away on his phone is in my seat so I just take one at the end of the row. Violent Night starts off with drunk Santa right away. As he tosses ‘em back at a dingy bar on Christmas Eve, we learn that the once jolly old elf has become bitter and jaded in the modern day because of…video games, apparently. Haven’t those been around for decades now? In spectacular boomer fashion, Santa complains about kids losing the Christmas spirit and the magic having disappeared. This may be his last Christmas performing his duties as Saint Nick.

David Harbor stars as Santa Claus in 'Violent Night'
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As he takes off into the night with his reindeer, we’re treated to him vomiting over the side of the sleigh right onto someone’s head. The screen lights up with the words VIOLENT NIGHT. A puke gag before the title card? Not, you know, violence? I guess that’s a choice. It hasn’t been a great start, however as Santa goes about his supposedly final route the movie gets in some solid jokes like nothing being under Christmas trees except Amazon boxes (no wrapping paper) and Christmas lists from kids only asking for cash. Okay, you’ve got us there. But the slight chuckles are short-lived; this dreadful movie is about to set up its plot.

We’re introduced to the Lightstone family and their prestigious mansion, where the dysfunctional group has gathered for the holiday. Family man Jason (Alex Hassell) and his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) have arrived with their wide-eyed and sincere daughter Trudy (Leah Brady), while the self-absorbed Alva (Edi Patterson) has brought along her wannabe influencer son Bertrude (Alexander Elliot) and her new boyfriend, C-list movie star Morgan Steele (Cam Gigandet). At the center is family matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), whose company has been the source of all their wealth.

Some mercenaries led by John Leguizamo eventually show up, take the family hostage and attempt to get into the Lightstone vault, unbeknownst to them that Santa happens to be stopping by at the same time. Realizing that a child is in danger, Santa jumps into action and takes on the armed killers single-handedly, reigniting the Christmas spirit for everyone (including himself) through vicious mortal combat.

Besides Brady skating by on innocent charm and Harbour being Harbour, there’s not a single likable character to be found in Violent Night. The film is stuffed full of really bad, bizarre and unconfident performances, but you can only blame the actors so much - the real problem is the inert and aggressively unfunny script they've been given. There’s hardly a scene to be found that doesn’t feel exceptionally amateur, whether it’s the nonsensical blocking, the painful attempts at humor or the lackluster action sequences.

David Harbour and John Leguizamo star in 'Violent Night'
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

This film’s version of Santa has a couple of neat magical abilities, like his sack that pulls out a random gift for a kid each time he reaches in, but he isn’t really superhuman. It’s nice to see him take some serious hits and often struggle to take down a regular goon, which is the kind of rugged action style that producers 87North have been leaning on to make hits like Nobody, John Wick, and Atomic Blonde. On the more comedic side, which is what Violent Night poorly tries to shoot for, they’ve also produced Deadpool 2 and this year’s almost equally as disappointing Bullet Train. But whereas that Brad Pitt dud at least offered a sleek and expensive look as well as a unique setting, Violent Night has no such budget, superstar cast or much originality to fall back on.

Credit where credit is due; there is one early fight sequence between Harbour’s Santa and stunt performer Can Aydin down in the mansion basement that is very good. It’s fun, intense and surprising in the ways all the best action moments are. But the rest is a total blur of uninspired brawls that never take enough advantage of the film’s own silly holiday setup. It comes across more like some kind of action stunt highlight reel or a YouTube video than a real movie, and would in fact probably have been better and more streamlined (or at least more forgivable) as either one. I'm well aware that I can't expect Shakespeare from these kinds of movies, but you've gotta give me something besides increasingly monotonous bloodshed.

Look, I could go on for far too long than I already have. Violent Night is one of those bad movies that keeps piling on things that make it worse and worse as it goes on. From idiotic villains (not in the fun way!) to a straight Home Alone ripoff to an obligatory Viking warrior backstory for Santa that doesn’t matter in any way, there’s just very, very little to be charmed or entertained by in this flick. The humor is never smart or stupid enough and what little momentum the movie has keeps coming to a screeching halt so that we can learn about the true spirit of Christmas, as if this is supposed to be some kind of earnest film. This should be ridiculous and exaggerated schlock with some fun bloody, Christmas-themed violence, and yes there are a couple moments at least, but the final product is wholly incapable of being much of anything.

How it feels to finally finish 'Violent Night'

After watching Harbour step in reindeer shit and someone like Leguizamo struggle with catastrophically unnatural lines like “This upsets me! This upsets me in a way that makes me want to shoot randomly at people!”, the film comes to a merciful end. In the seat that I paid for, that same guy hasn’t put his phone down once. The rest of the audience remained mostly silent throughout. At least one sap seemed to enjoy himself in the back, cracking up at every bad joke, so I hope their $15 were worth it and God help them if they bought some snacks.

I step through two separate puddles to get to the bathroom stall. Someone immediately comes in whistling and then rips a fart. I try to shake off the terrible vibes of Violent Night and my theatrical experience with it in hopes that the next movie I’m about to see, Disney Animation’s Strange World, will be better. It certainly is, but not by that much. I go back out into that cold and bleak night, feeling more defeated than anything. Tough evening for a movie fan. Only one poster outside manages to shine in a vivid blue even through the desolate weather - Avatar: The Way of Water. This experience made me finally admit that movie theaters may be going the way of the dodo or the shopping mall, but if they are, at least there’s hope of one last big hoorah from James Cameron before we sink fully into the black void of streaming, where slop like Violent Night is often as good as it gets.

‘Violent Night’ is now playing in theaters.
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