Ordinarily, one wouldn’t judge a Christmas movie by the quality of its on-screen kills. But as yet another volatile year draws to a close, you might find yourself taking a measure of vicarious satisfaction in the spectacle of a red-suited, hammer-swinging, skull-crushing hero smiting his enemies. That hero, of course, is Santa Claus in “Violent Night,” a surprisingly festive action comedy from Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola (“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”).
The dark tone is set early as Santa – the real one, not a mall knockoff – is seen leaving an English pub, where the overwhelmed and burned-out character has been drowning his seasonal sorrows. (Yes, Virginia, sometimes even Santa wants to give up.) As Santa’s sleigh takes off into the winter night, the middle-aged pub owner looks up at the sky in childlike wonder – only for Santa to lean over and vomit on her.
This is the kind of movie where Santa steps in reindeer poop. But stick with it. It gets better.
During his Christmas Eve rounds, Santa (David Harbour) makes a fateful stop at a Connecticut mansion, where wealthy widow Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo) has gathered her money-grubbing adult children for a night of expletive-laden bad cheer. The only nice person in the room is Gertrude’s granddaughter Trudy (Leah Brady), a girl whose only wish for Christmas is that her divorced parents get back together.
Enter Scrooge in the form of John Leguizamo, whose character leads a gang of mercenaries posing as caterers before they kill the Lightstones’ entire security staff and take the family hostage.
Surely Santa can save the day, but will he use Christmas magic or brute force?
Written by Pat Casey and Josh Miller (co-screenwriters on the two “Sonic the Hedgehog” movies), “Violent Night” frequently plays out like a Yuletide video game. But while much of the violence is unpleasantly gruesome, a few of the killings are hilarious.
Yet under all that slick, rapid-fire mayhem, there’s also a touch of the noir – call it Yule Noir. This Kriss Kringle drinks to forget, and we share his lament for a hopelessly cynical world. And Leguizamo plays Scrooge (yes, that’s his name) with a gravelly voice that brings his performance within range of a Humphrey Bogart impression.
This cinematic bloodbath is only the latest in a curious subgenre of holiday movies envisioned through the jaded eyes of Nordic filmmakers. (See “Riders of Justice,” a wickedly ingenious revenge tale from Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen, framed around a girl’s Christmas wish. It had a similarly high body count, and an even more melancholy subtext.)
Whether hostage or captor, most of the grown-up characters here are awful people. But from Dickens’s Scrooge to Suess’s Grinch, isn’t the spirit of the season really about redemption? At its vulgar heart, “Violent Night” is about the tension between a child’s idealism and vigilante justice.
Behind all the gore-splattered walls and domestic rancor lies a sweet-and-sour bedtime story of good triumphing over evil. That said, please leave the kids at home.
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