Santa goes full John Wick in the Christmas splatter comedy 'Violent Night'

David Harbour is a holiday miracle in this one-joke yuletide rampage.

Photo of A.A. Dowd
Alexis Louder and David Harbour in Violent Night

Alexis Louder and David Harbour in Violent Night

Allen Fraser/Universal Pictures

Is there a hot take more freezer-burned, more cold as the North Pole, than "Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie?" Banish that weathered observation to the naughty list of yuletide staples no one needs to hear ever again. Each year, the "Jingle Bells" of movie opinions is trotted out anew by someone absolutely convinced they're blowing the whole lid off the holiday canon. Violent Night was made for that crowd, for anyone beaming with satisfaction over their "unorthodox" taste in seasonal viewing. This cheeky and sometimes amusing splatter comedy, in which jolly ol' Saint Nick goes honey-baked HAM on a bunch of generic terrorist scum, is a play on the mechanics of John McTiernan's 1988 action classic. If Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie, here's a Christmas movie that's actually Die Hard.

'Twas the night before at the sprawling estate of a filthy-rich American family, anonymous enough in privileged profile to mirror a viewer's despised corporate dynasty of choice. "The most secure private residence in the world" has, naturally, been breached. Crashing the party is a consortium of falsely festive criminals looking to loot the vault of boozing, foul-mouthed matriarch Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D'Angelo, a Christmas miracle of casting). Given that her extended clan includes a vain teenage influencer (Alexander Elliot), a movie star (Cam Gigandet) with Wahlbergian delusions, and a spoiled scion (Edi Patterson), one might wonder who we're supposed to be rooting for in this hostage situation. Oh, right, it's the cute, precocious kid (Leah Brady) begging Santa to get her parents back together.

Cam Gigandet, Alexander Elliot, and Edi Patterson in Violent Night

Cam Gigandet, Alexander Elliot, and Edi Patterson in Violent Night

Universal Pictures

Cue the arrival of the big guy, stumbling into the action by accident during his leisurely gift-giving rounds. This isn't your father's Mr. Claus. Introduced getting pissed at a London bar, and then puking over the edge of his airborne sleigh, Santa (David Harbour) is a disillusioned drunk going through the motions of his annual delivery spree. He's got magic but isn't invincible—a fact that emerges during the first of the film's full-contact, fight-to-the-death brawls. Violent Night has a little of the outrageous gore of director Tommy Wirkola's slapstick Dead Snow zom-coms. But it's also got the elaborately choreographed mayhem of a one-man-army action vehicle, with Santa clearing rooms of goons with improvised holiday weaponry. Which is to say, he's as much John Wick as he is John McClane.

This is obvious stuff, recycled and rewrapped and regifted. We've seen grizzled bad Santas, we've seen blade-wielding murderous Santas, we've even seen Santa as a badass action hero. (South Park got there many Decembers ago.) For variety of plagiaristic fun, Violent Night also offers an extended riff on Home Alone, imagining what Kevin McCallister's scampish brutalizing of home invaders might look like with more "realistic" bodily consequences. That, too, has been done before. And how many dark comedies have made the audience hostages to the acerbic infighting of cheerless relatives gathered around the tree? Wirkola has hung a lot of familiar anti-holiday tropes on the branches of a premise perhaps better suited to the three-minute treatment of a TV or web comedy sketch.

David Harbour and John Leguizamo in Violent Night

David Harbour and John Leguizamo in Violent Night

Allen Fraser/Universal Pictures

Still, he roasts those old chestnuts with more conviction than was strictly necessary or expected. Violent Night may be a one-joke comedy, but it commits to that joke and tells it well enough. Die Hard fans will chuckle at how skillfully the formulaic setup has been replicated; on the edge of lampoon and ripoff sit the fluidly edited and shot scenes of Euro-trash thieves disguised as caterers, sending their grab-and-smash plan into motion. It was smart to land John Leguizamo in the Hans Gruber role, here a self-proclaimed Scrooge who despises Christmas as much as he covets his mark's money. The actor gives the ho-ho-ho-hum villainous quips an edge of personality. The movie has a bit more of that than a logline might suggest.

Its biggest asset is Harbour, the erstwhile Stranger Things sheriff, who's frankly excellent in his lead role, playing all its emotional notes like they were the stuff of a real, meaty character drama and not, well, a movie about an ass-kicking Santa Claus. He gets the joke and plays it as straight as he can, investing his barfly speech bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas with a salty pathos and even redeeming the film's hoariest attempt at warming hearts, the walkie-talkie chats with a preteen on his "nice" list. What a boon to larger-than-life Hollywood action figures Harbour is! We take him seriously, even when swaddled in the red of a Hellboy, a washed-up super spy, or a hammer-swinging Kris Kringle.

But would it kill just one of these wars on Christmas to stick to their bitter guns? That's the most tiresome tradition floating in Violent Night's regurgitated eggnog: the late pivot to warm-and-fuzzies it's only been pretending to counterprogram against. No amount of raining viscera can disguise the Hallmark twinkle of the film's upshot, polishing a lump of coal into yet another tribute to the most wonderful time of the year. But what about us genuine Grinches? Don't we deserve a seasonal staple of our own, instead of just another ode to the holiday spirit in Die Hardian drag?

Violent Night opens in theaters everywhere Friday, December 2.

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