'Violent Night' Review: David Harbour in a Bloody Action Santa Comedy

The now-ancient joke about the kind of pitches that movie executives respond to (“It’s ‘Avengers 2’…meets ‘Glass Onion’!”) is really about what the audience responds to. We’re the ones who like our special-sauce tacos stuffed inside a bacon burger topped with a bun made of pizza. And “Violent Night” is a movie that takes the oversize appetite of the audience very seriously. The title might lead you to expect a holiday horror film, with Santa as a mad slasher ­— but, you know, we’ve been there, eaten that. In “Violent Night,” David Harbour, that jovially quirky actor from “Stranger Things” and the 2019 “Hellboy” reboot, does in fact play a dissolute Santa who cruises through Christmas on a bender of holiday cookies and random alcohol, peeing and puking off the side of his sleigh — but in movies like “Bad Santa,” we’ve tasted that fast-food combo, too.

To wake up the jaded taste buds of today’s holiday movie audience, you need a piece of entertainment that’s truly going to combine flavors. So consider this: a comedy about a filthy-rich family whose members can’t stand each other but gather anyway, on Christmas Eve, at the Greenwich, Conn., mansion of their misanthropic matriarch, Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo), for a little forced holiday cheer. Before the festivities have begun, they’re set upon by a ruthless team of home invaders led by a psycho who calls himself Scrooge (John Leguizamo). He sets the tone with a hearty “Bah humbug, motherfucker!,” and the foul-mouthed Yuletide spirits escalate from there.

Scrooge, who’s been casing the joint for months, knows that there’s $300 million hidden in the vault below, and he has arranged it so that everyone — catering staff, security agents — is secretly working for him. What he wasn’t counting on is Santa Claus, who’s making his yearly Christmas pitstop. Santa is a bit of a Scrooge himself: a drunk and a curmudgeon who can’t get over what consumerist zombies today’s kids have become. But he’s also got special powers. Do I mean his ability to glide, with a twinkling twitch of his nose, up and down chimneys? Or the golden digital scrolls he unfurls with a list of what each kid has done that’s naughty or nice? Certainly all that.

Mostly, though, this Santa is a weapon-welding badass. He’s many centuries old and started off, in vintage Kris Kringle fashion, as some sort of earthy Scandinavian Viking warrior. Now he’s like a member of the Expendables, dispatching enemies with old-school brutality. When he grabs a giant metal hammer, he becomes a death-wish version of Thor. But since “Violent Night” is a Christmas movie, it’s all in good fun! Especially when Trudy (Leah Brady), the tween daughter of Jason (Alex Hassell), the only honorable member of the Lightstone clan, goes “Home Alone” medieval on the asses of the home invaders. Ladders are booby-trapped so throats get pierced with nails; heads are scalped; the pain gets brought. As someone in a film like this might put it: That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Or maybe I should just say: Have yourself a bloody little gonzo action Christmas.  

Over the last week, everyone in entertainment media, including me, has churned out hand-wringing articles about how the acclaimed awards films are all fizzling at the box office. One after another, “Tár,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “She Said,” “Triangle of Sadness,” and “Till” are all crawling their way to a gross of maybe $10 million. (“The Fabelmans,” with a more high-profile pedigree, will probably crawl its way to $20 million.) We know that this is the age of Marvel, so “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is the triumphant counterexample. But even in 2022, people don’t just go to Marvel movies. One of the things that’s defeated adult moviegoing is the insatiable hunger for unabashed junk food like “Violent Night.” The movie has no comic-book hook; it’s a trash-compactor genre buffet that smashes together a dozen things you’ve seen before. But that’s the hook. “Violent Night” is amusing in a few spots, wearying in more than a few others, but to complain about it in the way that I’m doing is to come off as churlish. It’s a movie that feeds the beast.

David Harbour gives off of a ping of likability, and that makes him the right actor to play a down-in-the-dumps, vengeance-is-mine Santa who is really, beneath his bloody mottled gray curls, the Christmas mensch we want him to be. John Leguizamo, as always, refuses to phone anything in; as Scrooge the sociopath who hates Christmas, he makes every obscenity pop. Beverly D’Angelo, Edi Patterson, and Cam Gigandet play the rest of the Lightstone clan as walking high-camp horrors, and Alexis Louder, as Jason’s estranged wife, lends a lone note of stubborn sanity to the proceedings. “Violent Night,” with its action-thriller soundtrack built around themes from classic Christmas songs, is a movie that makes you think: What’s next, “Massacre on 34th St.”? Christmas movies, like all Hollywood pulp, build on one another, and maybe this is just one more age-of-nothing-sacred holiday mish-mash, but “Violent Night,” depending on how it performs, could open the door to a new kind of down-and-dirty Christmas/action hybrid. Just imagine hearing lines like “God bless us — every one, motherfucker!” The possibilities are endless.

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