Friday, April 19, 2024

‘Violent Night’, Gory Night

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If you’ve seen the advertisement or the trailers for Violent Night, you more than likely thought, “This looks like Die Hard.” Well, it is like Die Hard. Almost exactly like Die Hard. Thankfully Violent Night is just enough like its inspiration without being a copy-paste Holiday kitsch version of it that it gets in and out before wearing out its seasonal welcome.

Tommy Wirkola isn’t trying to do anything more than have a bloody disgusting good time. Wirkola is a director whose filmography is filled with titles that make me go, “Hmmm, I’ll have to put that in my queue,” and then I forget about them. Having seen Violent Night, however, I may have to rectify that.

violent night
Santa Claus (David Harbour) and his trusty “Skull-Crusher”

Violent Night is a gory action movie with its heart- I’m not going to say the wrong place- but it is a little bit off center-and that’s fine. It’s also a movie unconcerned with the logistics of it all. Yes, it hints at David Harbour’s old St. Nick’s tragic blood-soaked Viking past but never revels in it. It’s not obsessed with the lore or the logistics of how Santa’s magic works and doesn’t.

An oft-repeated line from Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s script is, “I don’t know how the magic works. It just does.” If you’re walking into Violent Night expecting anything other than a slaphappy splatterfest that may be a little too sentimental for its own good, then you’ve walked into the wrong movie. Wirkola’s Violent Night merrily skips along, dropping nuggets of a tragic backstory while having Santa realize the modern world isn’t so bad after all, not if kids like Trudy (Leah Brady) are around.

Casey and Miller’s script doesn’t take place in Nakatomi Tower but at the Lightstone Manor. It’s the stately mansion of Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo), where the Lightstone clan has gathered for their annual Edward Albee-inspired holiday gathering. There’s her daughter Alva (Edi Patterson), a drunken sycophant married to failed action star Morgan Steele (Cam Gigandet), with their spoiled brat Berturde (Alexander Elliot) on one side. With somewhat well-adjusted Jason (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder), and their daughter Trudy on the other.

Soon, Jimmy Martinez (John Leguizamo) and his not-so-merry helpers storm into the house with guns blazing with plans to break into Grandma Lightstone’s safe and sneak off with her three hundred million dollars. Yes, all the henchmen have names like Frosty, Gingerbread, and in Jimmy’s case, Mr. Scrooge.

Little Trudy is Santa’s little helper as she sets up traps, just like in a movie she saw recently, Home Alone. Santa, meanwhile, gets to work trimming down the names on his naughty list. The majority of the fun in Violent Night comes from watching Harbour as Santa as he dispatches one goon after another. At one point in the film, he is in a barn with a ball-peen hammer calling to mind his old Viking Warhammer, “Skull-Crusher,” as he picks off an army of bad guys bit by gruesome bit.

violent night
Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo) and his people try to open their presents early

Wirkola doesn’t waste time telling us what kind of movie Violent Night will be. The opening scene has Santa driving off the roof of a bar, with the bartender staring in awe, only to have the jolly elf vomit on her face. It’s in these moments that Violent Night hits all the right notes when it wallows around in the cellar of good taste. It’s when it’s doing all of the “let’s believe in magic” stuff is when it becomes a little trite.

violent night
Santa (Harbour) has had a rough night

Harbour is the magic that keeps Violent Night going for as long as it does. He imbues Santa with just enough sincerity but plays him with the right amount of hard edge to make him both lovable and somewhat menacing. It’s a balancing act that’s so good and pulled off so effortlessly that it’s bound to get lost amongst everything else.

It’s not just Harbour, as Leguizamo is also a crucial ingredient of this holiday treat. He and Harbour bounce off each other nicely and trade one-liners and threats of violence with flawless joyful precision. Leguizamo’s Mr. Scrooge is the brains and the skeptic of the heist. The one who hates Christmas but also can’t believe he’s dealing with the genuine article.

A running gag throughout Violent Night is how readily some characters accept what’s going on compared to others. Casy and Miller have fun with the absurdity but never get too meta for their own good. This attitude pays off in the end when Scrooge finally accepts the truth and becomes hellbent on destroying Christmas.

Wirkola makes Violent Night a fun bit of gory Feliz Navidad but little else. I am mildly disappointed at the film’s lack of “eat the rich” ethos. Wirkola, Casey, and Miller make the ethical system that guides Santa’s “good” and “naughty” list a mixed bag. Scrooge and his assassins, a ragtag team of disgruntled Lightstone employees and sociopaths, are on the naughty list. Yet, nary a peep is uttered by Santa about Grandma Lightstone, who is revealed to be essentially a war profiteer. As deserved as Scrooge’s delightfully gruesome death is, I’m left feeling Grandma got off a little light. Perhaps having Trudy on her side gave her some much-needed bonus points.

In the end, I don’t suppose it matters. Besides, Wirkola has already told us his feelings. “I don’t know how any of this works.” Neither do I. I do know Violent Night nails what it wants to be without apology. It is what it is and nothing more.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

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