A couple of years back, directors the Nelms brothers gave us the fantasy tinged action thriller Fatman (2020). The selling point of the film was putting Santa in an R rated action thriller, however my main reason for looking forward to Fatman was to do with the Nelms brothers’ previous film, Small Time Crime (2017), a terrific crime thriller that had me hotly anticipating what they would do next.
Ultimately Fatman would turn out to be less the sum of its parts. Although bolstered by great lead performances from Mel Gibson and Walton Goggins, the film was sadly lacking in the action department. Perhaps this was more to do with my initial expectations than the actual qualities of the film, but it just wasn’t the film I was hoping for.
The reason I bring Fatman up is due to its apparent similarities with this week’s Violent Night, another Santa Claus tale which again sees the legendary character taking up arms against an assortment of criminals.
The difference between Fatman and Violent Night is that the latter clearly had better resources at its disposal, with it coming from production team 87North Productions who were responsible for Nobody (2021) and Bullet Train (2022), which contributes to the high quality of the film’s plentiful action scenes.
Additionally, the director behind the camera is the underrated Tommy Wirkola of Dead Snow (2009) fame. As expected, Wirkola brings his blackly comic sensibilities to proceedings, creating a gleefully violent actioner that is equal parts Die Hard (1988), Home Alone (1990) and Santa Claus the Movie (1985), minus Dudley Moore. Thank Christ.
It is the season to be jolly, but Santa Claus (David Harbour) isn’t feeling much of the Christmas cheer. He has grown increasingly cynical and world weary, despondent at how greedy the world has become and that kids these days are only interested in material things. As he gets more drunk, Santa starts to think that this may be his last Christmas.
At the same time Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell) is meeting his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their daughter Trudy (Leah Brady), where the three of them are going to his mother Gertrude’s (Beverly D’Angelo) for Christmas. Also visiting is Jason’s overbearing sister Alva (Edi Patterson), her arsehole son Bert (Alexander Elliot) and her new husband, the clueless Morgan (Cam Gigandet).
Before the night has even started, Alva and Jason’s sibling rivalry has already cut in. Their arguments are quickly stopped however with the appearance of Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo) and a team of mercenaries who are planning to rob the Lightstone family of its ill gotten gains.
Unbeknownst to Mr. Scrooge, Santa has also shown up at the Lightstone estate to deliver gifts, with him quickly getting involved in a fight with one of the mercenaries that results in his reindeer flying off to safety. At first Santa considers doing the same but decides to stay back and try to save the family when he spots Trudy through the window.
He later finds a walkie talkie where he is able to speak with Trudy, with her helping him take out the bad guys from afar, with Trudy reminding Santa why he should still care about Christmas.
Wirkola doesn’ disappoint in creating a well blended mix of action and comedy, with Violent Night being a perfect antidote to those turned off by the more schmaltzy Christmas films that the season is famous for. Anyone who has seen his previous work like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) and What Happened to Monday (2017) will know that he has a clear skill in lensing violent action scenes. In the majority of his work there is a clear dark streak of humor running throughout, with Violent Night being no different.
Wirkola also shows that you don’t need a massive $200 million budget to create a great action film, with Violent Night reportedly costing $20 million to produce. No doubt costs were lowered as it was mostly shot in the one location, but even so the film looks as good as many of its big budget counterparts.
Some may complain that the film isn’t exactly original, and this is true. The script from writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller pretty much ticks all the boxes in the Die Hard rule book, just with Santa taking the place of the John McClane stand-in. Even so, as unoriginal as it may seem, it’s more in how the tale is told that keeps events feeling fresh, with Violent Night injecting a lot more humor into the tale than a lot of other Die Hard style movies.
Even with all the humor, there’s surprisingly a lot of heart in the film with the developing relationship between Harbour’s Santa and Leah Brady’s Trudy creating the required emotional stakes a film like this requires. Thank god, as other than Trudy, the rest of her family aren’t really worth saving, with each of them willing to stab the other in the back.
The worst offender is Beverly D’Angelo’s Gertrude, who takes pleasure in making her kids fight amongst each other for her love. D’Angelo seems to relish the chance in letting loose as the foul mouthed family matriarch, with Gertrude being far removed from her most well known role of Ellen Griswold in the Vacation movies.
Even Alex Hassell’s Jason, who is meant to be one of the more upstanding members of the Lightstone family, is still willing to throw certain members of his family under the bus, although he is at least willing to stand up for those he truly cares about. Hassell does well enough in his role but his character is quite bland in comparison to his more out there family members.
The same is true of Alexis Louder, who seriously impressed me in last year’s Copshop (2021). Louder’s role pales in comparison to what she got to do in Joe Carnahan’s actioner, with her only really getting involved in the action towards the end of the film. For the remainder of the film she is by the sidelines, playing the worried mother.
I never thought I’d actually be saying this, but Cam Gigandet is great fun as Morgan, a desperate action star who would like people to believe he is more like one of his movie characters than he actually is. His role is all the better due to the fact that Gigandet has since become something of a DTV action star himself, although not as pathetic as Morgan is. At least I believe Gigandet’s films sell to more audiences than just those in some parts of Asia like his character does.
On the villain front is John Leguizamo, who initially doesn’t seem like he would be much of a protagonist for Harbour to go up against. Surprisingly, Leguizamo actually holds his own in the small amount of action scenes he gets involved in. Obviously due to the type of film this is, his character doesn’t have a great deal of depth but this is definitely one of his better bad guy roles with him getting some choice dialogue. One particular line clearly aimed at Halloween Kills (2021) was especially hilarious.
Accompanying Leguizamo on his bad guy activities are the likes of Brendan Fletcher, Mitra Suri, Andre Eriksen and Mike Dopud who all do good work in the limited time they are given, with them all getting involved in a percentage of the action.
All this brings us to the great man himself, with David Harbour being paramount to how successful the film is. His performance is the lynchpin of the film, that if he failed the entire film would collapse around him. Of course he gives the role his all, bringing a much needed humanity to his performance. This is a Santa that has been around too long and has seen the worst humanity has to offer. Harbour injects a great deal of pathos into his performance, with the guilt of his past coming to the fore on a number of occasions. It’s a much different Santa than what I was expecting and all the better for it.
As he does in Stranger Things, Harbour still adds a touch of humor to the role, with him being at his sarky best. Also like Stranger Things, he gets multiple opportunities to show off how much of a bad ass he can be. It’s refreshing to see an action hero that isn’t in the best of shape but can still be a force to be reckoned with.
I can certainly see Harbour getting some mileage out of his take on Santa Claus. It would be great to see him on further adventures, taking on more people that’s on his naughty list. It is definitely a better star vehicle than his last headlining role in the ill-advised Hellboy (2019) and gives him more opportunity to show off both his acting and action skills.
Unlike the previously mentioned Fatman, Violent Night leans more into the fantastical elements of the Santa Legend, but not so much that it’s heavily relied upon. Even with the use of magic, most of the time Santa has to rely more on his strength than any mystical powers, leading to extremely bloody results. The majority of the action in the film is mostly of the hand to hand variety rather than gunfights, with Harbour using a mix of household weapons to take out his opponents.
There are several standout fight scenes during the film’s run time. I didn’t know about the involvement of the Reel Deal action team, who choreographed the film’s awesome fight scenes. As well as working behind the scenes, team members Phong Giang, Can Aydin and Cha-Lee Yoon all appear in the film.
Phong Giang goes up against Harbour in the films first main fight scene which gives the audience a small taste of what is to come, but it is Harbour’s fight with Aydin that is one of the films main standouts. The two of them brutally go at each other in a games room, with each of them using whatever comes to their disposal, be it darts or at one point a star off a Christmas tree. Like the rest of the film the fight is both brutal and hilarious in equal measure.
Another standout action scene, certainly the goriest, is where Harbour takes on an entire team of mercenaries in an old shed, using everything from a sledgehammer to a pair of ice skates to brutally slaughter whoever gets in his way. At one point he even uses a candy cane to kill someone. Any other film that may seem strange but here you will barely raise an eyebrow when compared to all the other chaos going on.
I appreciated the homage to Home Alone, with Trudy laying a series of traps. Unlike Home Alone, Violent Night shows the brutal result these traps would have on the human body. One wince inducing scene had one of the mercenaries’ scalp being torn off when their head is stuck to the floor by industrial grade glue.
If I had one complaint about the film it would be that there is a slight lull in terms of action during the middle section of the film, but there’s enough still going on to at least make these scenes worthwhile.
I must add that the musical score from Domic Lewis certainly adds to that nostalgic feeling, with it being highly reminiscent of the late great Michael Kamen’s work, with it especially paying homage to his score for Die Hard which was very apt.
Violent Night may not be for everyone, and it will certainly turn off those looking for a more traditional Christmas movie. But it will certainly find an audience amongst those more cynical viewers who look for something a little darker round the festive period. It will certainly be a film I will revisit come Christmas time next year as well as showing up on my best of list this year.
Plot: 3.5/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 4.5/5 Overall: 4/5