YOU BETTER WATCH OUT….
Santa, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, and so on and so forth. There are many names to the fictional character of Santa Claus, but all speak to the same iconic figure around the holiday season character (mainly from the Western Christian culture) who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved children on the night of Christmas Eve (December 2nd); waking up to find gifts left behind on the morning of Christmas Day (December 25th). Usually and generally depicted as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man (sometimes having spectacles), and wearing a red coat with white fur cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur, and black leather belts, and carrying a bag full of gifts for children. Naturally, this imagery of Santa Claus is also accompanied by his magical sleigh that is pulled by several flying reindeer. All of these images of Santa have been maintained and reinforced through the various media facets, including songs, radio specials, television productions, cartoons, children’s books, movies, and advertising. Now, Universal Pictures and director Tommy Wirkola present the latest cinematic endeavor to depict Santa Claus (in a new twist) with the film Violent Night. Does this film find meaning within its collision of R-rated violence and holiday spirit or is it just a bland mesh-mash of ideas that never comes together?
It’s Christmas Eve in upstate Connecticut as Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell) is hoping to reconnect with his estranged wife, Linda (Alexis Louder), and make time for his daughter, Trudy (Leah Brady). The family is paying a visit to the luxurious mansion of Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), Jason’s mother, the matriarch of the Lightstone clan and the business mogul head of the family’s corporation, who’s barely interested in the holiday gathering festivities, which also involves Jason’s sister, Alva (Edi Patterson), her showboating new boyfriend, Morgan Steel (Cam Gigandet), and her bratty social media influencer son, Bert (Alexander Elliot). Breaking up the celebration is Scrooge (John Leguizamo), who leads a team of hired mercenaries and inside men, quickly taking the gathered Lightstone family hostage, with the hopes to unlock a fortune held inside mansion’s secret vault. While tension is building inside, Santa Claus (David Harbour) is making his yearly routine rounds outside, coming to the Lighthouse mansion and inadvertently gets pulled into the fight against Scrooge’s goons and hired muscle. Such involvement triggers past memories with Santa, with the iconic Christmas hero ready to put up a fight to save Trudy, who makes a special connection with Saint Nick, and to put those on his “naughty list” in their place.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
If this paragraph (and the opening one) sound familiar…. it’s because I borrowed what I wrote from my review for 2019’s Klaus, which is understandable for this review (and that one) due to my introduction talking about Santa. So…. without further ado. Like many kids growing up, I believed in Santa Claus. I know, I know….it sounds a bit of cliché (something that’s kind of a “rite of passage” for kids of the Christian faith) as the legendary fictional character has become more iconic with the tidings of Christmas more so than the religious birth of Jesus Christ (of whom the holiday is centered around). Still, looking beyond that point, the character of Santa Claus has certainly indeed become a major staple of the Christmas season; finding the many “holly jolly” iteration of good ol’ Saint Nick and his gift giving sleigh ride on Christmas Eve night to be a visual imagery that has been deeply imbedded in many childhood memories (and it still continues to be one for me in my mind). Of course, the depiction of Santa has always been the same, but there has been a wide variety of TV episodes, movies, cartoons, and stories that showcase Father Christmas, including Rise of the Guardians, Elf, The Polar Express, Miracle on 34th Street, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and many, many others. So, much like the other fictional childhood-like characters of youth (i.e. the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc.), the imagery of Santa Claus will continue to live on and be a popular (and iconic) symbol for the Christmas holiday season for generations to come.
Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Violent Night, a 2022 Christmas action-comedy film and the latest motion picture to feature Santa Claus as a main focal of the narrative. With the abundance of Christmas / holiday themed movies coming out each year, it’s kind of hard to keep track of them all as we near the yuletide season. However, with Violent Night, I clearly remember it throughout the latter half of 2022. While I really didn’t hear much about the project when it was first announced or even the cast that was involved, I did first hear about this movie when the film’s movie trailer began to appear online as well as in the movie theaters during the “coming attractions” previews, especially when I saw either a PG-13 or R-rated picture. From the trailer alone, the movie looked like it was going to be quite an experimental movie, with the blending mixture of holiday Christmas themes and dressing aesthetics with a hard R-rated action-violence throughout. This unorthodox concoction seemed a bit jarring (from the trailer alone), but sometimes this hybrid of ideas can be quite effective, especially if the movie is sort of self-aware of how ridiculous it can be. Plus, I did like the idea of actor David Harbour playing the role of Santa and how his jovial yuletide demeanor changes as he plans to take out bad guys in gruesome fashion. Still, I didn’t have really high expectations for this movie, but I did decide to check this movie out when Violent Night was set to be released on December 2nd, 2022. I did see the film during its opening weekend, but I decide to wait to get my review done for it, especially since I was playing a little bit of “catch up” with some of my other reviews that need to be pushed out. Now, on the eve of Christmas 2022, I finally have some time to share my personal thoughts on this movie. And what did I think of it? Well, it was a bit disappointing. While the movie does have fun with its surreal premise and delivers on its violent action, Violent Night just feels like a haphazard and shallow presentation that never really comes together. It definitely gets some things right, but it’s not really a modern holiday classic that some are claiming it to be….at least in my opinion.
Violent Night is directed by Tommy Wirkola, whose previous directorial works includes projects like Dead Snow, The Trip, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Given his background on those particular endeavors, Wirkola seems like a suitable choice in helm a movie that takes the classic Santa Claus archetype and make him fight against a bunch of hired mercenaries that are trying to take over a mansion as well as holding a family hostage. Many have called this particular movie a combination of Die Hard Meets Home Alone and I think that was the intention that Wirkola was going for when he directed this film. Yes, the similarities are there and are definitely noticeable, but that seems to be the “name of the game”, with Wirkola staging events throughout the movie has evokes the similar feeling of those two holiday themed movies. It works for its sum parts and, while the movie doesn’t work as well as either Die Hard or Home Alone, the scenarios and scenes are quite clear, with Wirkola having fun with those key sequences to emulate that same type of nostalgia Christmas fun. In addition, Wirkola, for his parts, also makes sure to keep the movie somewhat “light on its toes” and never really gets bogged down in too many superfluous ideas or goes off on a tangent unnecessary.
Of course, the big “highlight” that Violent Night does succeed in is in the film’s action and violence scenes, which Wirkola delivers in spades. The fighting sequences are very fun and help build the feature’s story and tension throughout the endeavor, with some of these parts having that joyous fun of being violent. Of course, it’s not violent just for the sake of being violent, but it certainly takes some type of joyous fun of taking the surreal premise of Santa Claus fighting off hired mercenaries and dispatching them in some violent ways. It’s clear that this is main focus in certain points, with Wirkola homing in on just gruesome violence with vigor and tenacity that comes across with some clever usage of various objects in the area where the fight is taking place as well as the sometimes goofiness of how Mr. Claus kills the bad guys. Again, it’s play for laughs and for some entertainment value, so, while violence with its action, these particular scenes in the feature are definitely best part of the movie.
Naturally, this doesn’t make the movie all action, violence, and gore throughout, with Wirkola able to manage to make a few key points of holiday Christmas spirit that is sprinkled in and out of Violent Night. It’s not the strongest I’ve seeing in a Christmas movie, but still manages to have a few fleeting moments of holiday sentimental to make the feature manageable during those particular scenes. In a nutshell of the positive remarks, Violent Night, while not the greatest or an instant classic of modern holiday themed movies, still manages to make its mark through its sheer force of being self-aware for a cheeky satire film of being Christmas nuances and hard R-rated violence, which makes the movie fun in its sum parts on those particulars.
In its presentation, Violent Night is a mixture okay and good nuances, with the background setting of the feature looking “even keel” for the feature. That’s not to say that the movie’s production quality is bad or anything, but I just don’t really have much to say about it as the film looks like something that meets the industry standard of movies of this same type of caliber. Of course, the Lightstone mansion is set as the primary setting for most of the film’s duration, so that, along with the holiday Christmas decorations, looks pleasing to the eye and creates a nice little sandbox arena for the story’s heroes and villains to play around in. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Ksenia Markova (art direction), Roger Fires (production design), Tamara Gauthier (set decorations), Laura DeLuca, certainly get the job done and help make Violent Night’s production presentation respectable and customary to the feature’s proceedings. Again, I don’t expect these people to be nominated for their work on this movie, but, for their part, I think that they did a good job. This can also be said with cinematography work by Matthew Weston. It’s adequate and gets the job done, but nothing really to rave about. Lastly, while the score for the movie, which was composed by Dominic Lewis, is pretty good and keeps up the pace for both lighthearted moments and bombastic action, the actual music soundtrack selections for Violent Night is superb and definitely left a memorable mark on the feature. Of course, Lewis contributes to this selection by composing some of the tunes and of some of my recognizable Christmas themed songs (i.e., “Jingle Bells”, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “The 12 Days of Christmas”, and several others. But by far the best song in the movie would definitely be the usage of Bryan Adams’s “Christmas Time”, which plays out when the film’s violent action kicks into high gear. The scene, along with the song, is brilliantly done and perhaps the best scene in the entire film.
Unfortunately, Violent Night does certainly struggle in a few key areas and doesn’t fully examine everything quite well as it intended to, which creates several fragmented parts and draws criticisms towards the proceeding. How so? Well, for starters, the movie’s first act is quite dull and boring. As to be expected, this particular portion of the movie setup a lot of the narrative’s key points, including characters, personalities, and plot, but it should be this mundane and mediocre. All those said points are in fully force to help explain the events and characters in Violent Night, but it’s all handled in a way that is quite bland, which is strange because Wirkola definitely knows what he wants to say / convey for this picture yet struggles to find a meaningful to bring out the “best” for this narrative. The action in the first and second act is kind of “meh” at these points and feel rather weak, despite the fun and “over-the-top” violent that movie wants to convey. Yes, this aspect kicks it up a notch in the third act and is great (as mentioned above), but it comes painfully vanilla and not as insanely fun during first half of the feature, with a few scenarios that are creatively done, yet still feels a bit underwhelming and / or half-baked. This also comes in the form of how the movie is written, with the feature being penned by Pat Casey and Josh Miller, and how it presents all these particulars in a way that’s supposed to be memorable and fun. Unfortunately, such ideas, while good on paper and during the storyboarding process, don’t exactly translate well with the same type of zip and theatrical boldness when on-screen. The staleness of all of this becomes a bit monotonous and tedious in story and plodding of characters and events, with such dullness and underwhelming nuances.
There are also a lot of plot holes and vague character storyline beats that the movie sort of presents, glosses over, and just immediately drop them from the narrative, which causes a few fragmented pieces throughout Violent Night. This includes Jason and Linda’s past relationship (and how they fell out with each other), a few narrative snippets of Scrooge’s past, what the Lightstone empire business is (it’s never fully explained what they do), Gertrude’s harsh demeanor and her attachment toward her kids, and Santa’s somewhat ambiguous relationship with Mrs. Claus. All of these are presented in the film, yet the script doesn’t fully take the time to develop such nuances correct, with them ending up being haphazardly mess and underwhelming. This, of course, plays into the character development of many of the character of which I will go into a bit more detail below, but these plot holes are quite noticeable in the feature, which makes the movie feel flat and generic, despite the uber violent and cheeky premise that Violent Night wants to be. Perhaps the biggest plot point that felt like a big, missed opportunity was in the backstory for Santa, which is quite interesting, and I thought it would be fully explored. Alas, it doesn’t and sort of gets dropped at the beginning of the third act. Again, I know the movie wants to have fun with its setup and tonal presentation, but all of these particular story beats could’ve been easily expanded upon for a more wholesome endeavor rather than just a shallow one.
Additionally, the movie’s premise, while fun at times and embraces its absurd violence at times, breeds several corny / stupid parts that come off as lame. It’s kind of hard to take the movie seriously (even though I know it’s a satire and that I should take it too seriously at times) during heavy-handed dramatic sequences when such cringeworthy performances and / or scenes are represented with such flatness and goofiness throughout. For a movie to accomplish of overcome such obstacles, a director needs to find a proper balance of the heartfelt sentiment and wildly absurd of which some movie projects have successfully pulled off. Even the film’s comedy and the humor ends up being rather dull and uninteresting as I only chuckled a few times not because of how the dialogue that was written or how it was delivered, but mostly in some of the physical gags. Wirkola’s Violent Night desperately tries to emulate that notion but comes up short with a holiday motion picture that is heavy on its violence, yet light on its substance, which, accompanied by eye-rolling including cheesiness and just corny stupidity, that ultimately doesn’t work.
To make matters worse, Violent Night’s cast doesn’t really help much in the way of elevating the film or even looking past those particular points of criticism, with the selective cast of acting talent being mediocre and adequate at best. That’s not to say that their acting is terribly (as none of them are per say and are okay throughout), but the performance is a little wonky at times and the character themselves (both how they are portrayed and how they are written) woefully bad and almost unlikable for the most part. There are a few exceptions to this particular statement, with actor David Harbour leading the charge in the film as the movie’s main protagonist character Santa Claus. Harbour, who is known for his roles in Stranger Things, Hellboy, and Newsroom, has certainly started to make a name for himself throughout his career, selecting a wide variety of projects that certainly seem to fit his acting talents and / or creative personas. Thus, Harbour decision to play such a character like Santa Claus in an R-rated movie seems right up his alley and makes the most of the screen time in Violent Night. To be sure, Harbour does a pretty good job throughout the film and quite literally creates the weight of the feature on his shoulder, doing the heavy lifting in Violent Night for most of the duration of the movie. Harbour is up to the task and immediately sells the character through his somewhat humble demeanor that is a bit jaded mindset with recent times of today’s world, yet still filling the role of Santa with enough to meet expectations of the iconic figure. That being said, seeing Harbour playing such a character as the action begins to accelerate in the movie is where the actor truly shines and gets to have fun with Santa beaten up the bad guys. As mentioned earlier, there are some story beats where the film tries to showcase Santa’s past life (as a Viking-ish warrior), which (again) is quite interesting, but is it never fully developed beyond that. In the end, while the movie isn’t exactly the “must see” movie of the holiday season, Harbour certainly makes the movie somewhat enjoyable and pulls off a very interesting and different take on the classic Santa Claus character, one that still has all the bravado and nuances of the jolly old “saint nick”, yet still makes the character his own.
After Harbour, young actress Leah Brady comes a small yet effective job in the role of Trudy Jason and Linda’s daughter who believes in Santa and helps Saint Nick throughout the movie. Brady, who is known for her roles in The Umbrella Academy and Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls, is a relatively unknown young actress and, for her part in the film, does a decent job in playing Trudy, especially as the sweet and innocent young girl. However, beyond that notion, there isn’t much to her character. Although, to her credit, I really didn’t think much of her character going “in-depth” in this movie and is mostly there for the” spirit of Christmas” child-like innocence.
Behind those two characters, actor John Leguizamo gives a somewhat character nuance to the classic (if not stereotypical) villainous baddie in the movie as the character of Jimmy “Mr. Scrooge” Martinez, the leader of the mercenaries that lay siege to the Lightstone mansion and looking score the family’s massive fortune on Christmas Eve. Leguizamo, who is known for his roles in Spawn, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge!, has always been a good and reliable character actor that often plays a wide variety of roles throughout his career….in the more supporting position to the main leads. In Violent Night, Leguizamo gets the chance to play main “bad guy” role and he’s certainly up to the task bring that that particular meanness that’s bit colorful, lively, and brash all rolled in one. It’s clear he’s having fun playing such a role, which is good thing and comes off through his performance as Mr. Scrooge. That being said, the character is written rather generically and comes off as a “cookie cutter” baddie, which might be as planned, but it’s too much of the “wonder bread” variety as a main villain…. regardless of if the movie is a satire holiday theme endeavor. The character development is very minimal in Mr. Scrooge and, while there are hints of his backstory being a bit tragic and sympathetic, it’s ultimately brush aside rather quick as the character devolves back into a flat and one-dimensional antagonist. Plus, the script doesn’t reveal much of the way of why Mr. Scrooge and his hired team are seeking out to claim the Lightstone fortune, with just some “hand-wavy” mentioning here and there, which (as expected) comes off as lazy writing. Thus, while Leguizamo is good in the role, the character of Mr. Scrooge comes off as a flat villain in the movie.
Sadly, the rest of the main cast, including actor Alex Hassell (Suburbicon and The Boys) as Jason Lighthouse, actress Alexis Louder (Watchmen and Copshop) as Jason’s ex-wife Linda, actress Beverly D’Angelo (National Lampoon’s Vacation and American History X) as the matriarch of the Lightstone family Gertrude Lightstone, actress Edi Patterson (The Righteous Gemstone and Knives Out) as Jason’s sister Alva Lightstone, actor Alexander Elliot (The Hardy Boys and Being Brave) as Alva’s influencer son Bertrude “Bert” Lightstone, and actor Cam Gigandet (Twilight and The Magnificent Seven) as Alva’s blockhead boyfriend Morgan Steel, ends up woefully terrible and generic, with very little growth in their respective characters. Of course, I do completely that this movie is to be a holiday satire and doesn’t really take itself too serious at certain points, but none of these characters I really care about. There all quite bland and generic (I know that I say that a lot in this review, but they really are), with only one- or two-character traits that aren’t really expanded upon in the film as most stay the same in a rather cliché manner. This quite disappointing as some of these characters are supposed to bring some type of heartfelt moments and / or importance to the movie in some way, shape, or form, yet not one really gets that to point, with Violent Night creating such shallow (and rather hollow) character constructs that don’t really do much and don’t have the same type of impact the feature as being memorable. Thus, while the acting is not deplorable, these characters are just underwhelming written and end up being easily forgettable.
The rest of the film’s cast of characters, including actor Brendan Fletcher (The Revenant and Night Hunter) as Scrooge’s lead henchman “Krampus”, actor Andre Eriksen (Vikingane and Meglerne) as Scrooge’s henchmen “Gingerbread”, actress Mitra Suri (Altered Carbon and See) as Scrooge’s henchmen “Candy Cane”, actress Stephanie Sy (The Porter and A House on Fire) as Scrooge’s henchmen “Sugarplum”, stuntman / actor Phong Giang (The Protégé and Skylines) as Scrooge’s henchmen “Tinsel”, stuntman / actor Can Aydin (Cloud Atlas and The Matrix Resurrections) as Scrooge’s henchmen “Frosty”, and stuntman / actor Rawleigh Clements-Willis (The Ice Road and Nobody) as Scrooge’s henchmen “Peppermint”, are made up of the hired mercenaries that work under Scrooge’s control as they take control over the Lightstone mansion and are delegated to minor supporting roles in the movie. Unlike the rest of the cast, these particular characters are limited and generically portrayed by design as just the “gun for hire” bad guy goons with a holiday themed moniker names (a thing I really did like), so their minimalist character approach to said characters in Violent Night isn’t bad and didn’t bother me.
Doing his routine Christmas Eve rounds of giving gifts to everyone across the world, Santa finds himself in a sticky situation and must drum up old “violent” tendencies to save himself as well as a family being held hostage by hired mercenaries in the movie Violent Night. Director Tommy Wirkola’s latest film is quite the ambitious project by blending together R-rated violence with a holiday themed Christmas tale, which results in a picture that resembles a more adult-themed Home Alone meets Die Hard concoction. While the premise is fun at times and gets several nuances and “over-the-tope” violent tendencies in an amusing way as well as Harbour commendable performance throughout, the rest of the feature is just underwhelming throughout, including a lackluster direction, bland script, clunky handling of material, several fragmented plot points, and utterly flat and unmemorable characters. Personally, I thought this movie was mediocrely okay and disappointing, but leaning a bit more to the latter than the former. Yet, I really didn’t expect much from this feature. Yes, it did have its most and made use of the violent R-rating with its wild (and sometimes absurd) holiday premise, but the movie ends up being a messy endeavor that’s half-baked, bland, and sometimes noisy with very little substance. Again, I understand this movie is a satire of sorts and is an experiential type film, but I’ve seeing far better projects do better with some zany and goofy setups and tonal difference than what’s to be expect. That being said, some probably will like this feature’s violent antics and thinly sketched narrative, with my recommendation being both an “iffy choice” for them as well as a “skip it” for everyone else. Basically, some will get more milage out of this than other, but this is hardly the modern holiday classic than some are claim it to be. There are hints that at a possible continuation for a sequel in the works, but I think that a “one and done” endeavor is all that this film should be. Still, for better or worse, Violent Night ends up have fun with its violence acts of holiday cheer, but still ends up with a mesh-mash of ideas with little substance.
2.9 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice and Skip It)
Released On: December 2nd, 2022
Reviewed On: December 24th, 2022
Violent Night is 112 minutes long and is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and some sexual references