That belief will come in handy after a master thief extraordinaire who simply calls himself “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) crashes this Christmas shindig with a small army of goons. They’re here to hold Gertrude’s family hostage until she gives up her secret vault stuffed with $350 million (a la Die Hard). Clearly, Scrooge has anticipated every minute detail about this night… well, everything except for the fact that they arrive at the exact same time as a world weary Santa Claus (David Harbour) is delivering presents down the hall. And when Scrooge’s men attempt to pull a gun on Père Noël, they’ll discover a new definition for Santa giving the naughty their lumps.
Violent Night is swift and eager to paint with the broadest strokes and the thinnest of archetypes in its storytelling. This is a smart choice since the first act of the movie is particularly creaky as it labors toward Santa’s first kill. While the movie actually begins by introducing Harbour’s depressed St. Nick at the bottom of a bottle—here despairing less over his life than the sad commercialism of Christmas—the characterization is so threadbare that it leaves little of an impression.
Indeed, the movie gets far better mileage in its first act by casting D’Angelo, a stalwart of Christmas classics after putting up with Chevy Chase’s antics in Christmas Vacation (1988), against Leguizamo. D’Angelo is no stranger at playing ruthless ice queens and lightens the mood when sparring with Leguizamo, who appears to be relishing the chance to throw his own spin on a Hans Gruber type.
But really this is all table setting until the moment Harbour’s Santa is called into action and is forced to stuff an electric Christmas tree topper down a baddie’s throat. He then plugs it in.
This is where director Tommy Wirkola’s maximalist instincts for horror-comedy come alive in a more muscular environment. A genre darling after directing a pair of Norwegian zombie movies in his homeland, Dead Snow and Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, Wirkola has a knack for visualizing innovative carnage on pristine snowy landscapes. The way he mixes the red and white onscreen is not dissimilar to Clark Grizwold’s enthusiasm for exterior illumination. And in Harbour’s Santa, he might’ve found a perfect muse. Violent Night is (slightly) less gruesome than the wince-inducing imagery of Dead Snow, but now working with a Hollywood budget, there is a chipper joy to the way Wirkola stages gonzo set pieces, such as when Santa picks up a sledgehammer and literally starts dishing out lumps by the dozens across the brows of naughty, naughty bank robbers.
The movie attempts to be more than the sum of its violent spectacle, however, especially by leaning into a rather wholesome rapport between Harbour’s Santa and Brady’s young Trudy, who communicate over Toys ‘R Us walkie talkies like they’re Bruce Willis and Reginald VelJohnson. Wirkola even attempts to throw in some other holiday classic influences with a sequence that might be best described as R-rated Home Alone.