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‘Violent Night’

by Dan Lybarger | December 2, 2022 at 1:31 a.m.

If Willie Nelson were to describe watching "Home Alone," "Die Hard," "Bad Santa" and maybe "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" while sampling his favorite, um, herb, the description might just sound like what Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola ("Dead Snow") has come up with for "Violent Night."

Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller, the minds behind "Sonic the Hedgehog," earn at least a couple of points for imagining what might happen if Santa Claus (David Harbour) had gotten just a little jaded at how greedy people have gotten in the 11 centuries he's been around.

The movie begins at a bar where a department store Santa asks an apparent peer who is sliding into his cups if he's just gotten off for the evening. "Just taking a break between shifts," the real Santa replies. "You're not driving are you?" the young bartender inquires. "I just steer a little," Santa replies. "The reindeer do most of the work."

Turns out, though he "started the whole thing," Santa is a bit bah-humbuggy. He's had it with the consumerism of late capitalism and kids who want only cash or video games. It gives him an excuse for raiding liquor cabinets after he's hit the milk and cookies.

But as he soldiers on, his annual mission turns disastrous when he finds himself in the middle of a plot to kidnap and ransom the uber-wealthy (and, for the most part, distastefully avaricious) Lightstone family, devised by a group of thieves who have given themselves holiday-themed nicknames. Naturally, their cynical leader is named Scrooge (John Leguizamo).

Thanks to the booze, Santa can't simply fly up a chimney to get out and complete his Christmas Eve deliveries, and the reindeer flee when gunshots ring out.

Nonetheless, some of the skills that enable him to make impossible logistical feats come in handy. Who knew that Christmas magic came with a body count?

In "Black Widow" and "Stranger Things," Harbour has demonstrated that he can play action scenes while also conveying a weariness that helps sell his burned out Kris Kringle. It's frankly easier to cheer for a Santa pushed to his emotional and moral limits.

Wirkola, for the most part, embraces the inherent tastelessness in "Violent Night," and there are moments of inspired effrontery. Santa makes one woman's evening by leaving her with a gift for a loved one, but the remains of one of his dinners fall on her from his sleigh.

Casey, Miller and Wirkola struggle to create enough inspired vulgarity to fill the 101-minute running time. Apparently, there are only so many household objects Santa can use to violently neutralize Scrooge's team. When you've seen five bad guys subdued with a sledgehammer, you've pretty much exhausted the options for that tool.

Santa's chief ally is a little girl named Trudy (Leah Brady) who has just the right blend of earnest sweetness and Macaulay Culkin-esque sadism for intruders. Her relationship with Santa has the same tone as a Hallmark family special, but the sincerity helps leaven some of the bloodshed and grossout humor.

Harbour may be sporting a dad bod this time around, but he ably carries the setup farther than the material could travel by itself. Perhaps, he, too, has had some help from the magic sleigh and from whatever Willie Nelson likes to smoke.

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