B.etween Die Hard and Home Alone, fending off intruders in a single location has become a Christmas tradition on par with downing a few eggnogs and arguing about tax reform with older relatives. The new action picture Violent Night, which invokes both previously mentioned films by name as well as with constant all-caps homage, fits its seasonal siege into the post-John Wick beat-em-up mold co-originated by producer David Leitch. This could and should and sometimes manages to be a felicitous pairing of genre with gimmick, a novelty of theme proving vital to prolonging any winning formula. And just as Gene Kelly or Jackie Chan continually innovated fresh shtick by incorporating unexpected props and environments into their high-physicality routines, so too does the rough-hewn Santa Claus (David Harbour) leading the counteroffensive get some good mileage out of the arsenal of decorative bric-a-brac at his disposal.
Not to be a Scrooge, but the occasional eye-gouge with a tree-topper star or string-light garotte only lends a frosty air of resourcefulness to a film with coal for brains. Any cleverness stops with its improvised weaponry, the sufficiently brutal smackdowns wedged in a half-baked plot like so many chunks of candied apricot in an underdone fruitcake. Beneath the coagulated layer of maroon blood, this merry massacre wants to share in the goodwill toward men of the yuletide fare not courting an R rating, as it reacts an embittered Santa with the Christmas spirit and a deadbeat dad with the importance of family. Between the perfunctory sentimentality tacked on to the final act and the sophomoric yuks out of the Deadpool Book of Bad Words, however, there’s not a lot to thank St Nick for this year.
Besides, he doesn’t want to hear it. Director Tommy Wirkola (a logical fit for the job based on his experience in wintry gore with the Dead Snow zombie duology) introduces a grouchy Kris Kringle mid-bender, downing pints of beer and crabbing about how video games have destroyed the appreciation of toys in today’s children. Taking off in his sleigh, his bare DUI-baiting builds to a projectile-vomit on to the head of an onlooker below in place of “to all a good night” – a fair warning of the level of comedy to which writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller (most notably the scribes behind the Sonic the Hedgehog movies, not a good sign) aspire. The seldom gag goes further than the juxtaposition between Santa’s presumed jolliness and actual bad behavior, mostly in that he’s now free to curse; the vibe is more “dick and balls” than “deck the halls”.
While on his annual Christmas Eve delivery route, he lands smack in the middle of an assault on the home compound of the Lightstone family, one-percenter heirs to a company that does something, probably. Adult son Jason (Alex Hassell) is making nice with his ex-wife de él (Alexis Louder) for the sake of their moppet daughter (Leah Brady); his sister Alva (Edi Patterson, the only one here with any instinct for humor) has brought along her nincompoop husband (Cam Gigandet) and TikTok star son (Alexander Elliot, in a circa-2010 Justin Bieber outfit that would get him roasted to death on actual social media) to grovel before matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo, her presence a nod to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). Their greedy bickering doesn’t really do anything, aside from give the burnt-out Santa – who, it bears mentioning, was a hammer-wielding warrior with some ancient Germanic tribe in another time – the opportunity to get his mojo back by pulverizing some generic baddies on the naughty list.
Fight choreography is supposed to be the biggest gift films like this have to give, but as is the frustrating case with so many of Wick’s bastard descendants, the in-your-face camerawork makes that difficult. The cut-happy editing seems meant to disguise how simple the blow-trading really is, sacrificing the agility of the Hong Kong progenitors worshiped by Leitch for the illusion of brute force. After two hours spent on a concept that could reasonably sustain 90 minutes, the patterns of pummelings grow numbing and repetitive, and reveal the importance of establishing a foundation in story.
Contemporary classics (well, “classics”) like Die Hard and Home Alone continue to inspire the nostalgia evident in films like this by virtue of their heroes, both of whom imbued some semblance of emotional reality – a self-sufficient kid’s eventual fear of being Alone, a hardened lifer cop’s mushy heart of gold – to their outsized circumstances. Santa’s got a backstory, albeit a vague and cliched one, and Harbour’s grizzly-awoken-from-hibernation gruffness suits the role well. Yet he’s stuck in a drama that has nothing to do with him, populated by wrapping-paper-thin archetypes masquerading as human beings. Ultimately, Santa finds himself in a nightmare situation known all too well to anyone hard up for company around this time of year: surrounded by someone else’s family, listening to them argue about things that don’t matter and make jokes only they find funny.