Santa Claus (David Harbour) arrives at the wealthy estate of the Lightstone family, just as they're about to settle in for Christmas Eve and begin angling for the attention of their greedy and distant mother, Gertrude (Beverly D'Angelo). There's just one problem - a group of violent mercenaries, led by a man calling himself Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo), is leading a heist on the estate. When young Trudy (Leah Brady) is caught up in the armed assault, Santa Claus must spring into action with the help of some magic and a particular set of skills he acquired in a previous life...
'Violent Night' feels like such an honest-to-goodness no-brainer of a concept that it's kind of odd nobody's done it before. You take the Christmas classic 'Die Hard', and replace John McClane and his progressively dirtier shirt and replace it with jolly old Santa Claus. You can still have the tight bursts of action, the black humour, and the festive cheer, except it's all ramped up to 100 because it's Santa Claus doing the action here. So why isn't 'Violent Night' better?
For sure, David Harbour has the physical presence to play a burned-out, broken-down version of Santa Claus. The movie opens with him in a neighbourhood bar on Christmas Eve, getting sozzled and trading barbs with a shopping centre Santa before stumbling onto his sleigh and arguing with himself over retiring. The basic concept is also present here, trading Nakatomi Plaza for a large McMansion, and there's even a cute kid caught up in the heist business. Yet, 'Violent Night' can never seem to get out of its own way and just let the action and the fun happen.
The movie is hacked into pieces by poor editing, an overly convoluted story, and a general lack of pacing. All of this is made worse by the fact that it's kind of an ugly-looking movie to look at. It's not the uber-violence and the goriness that makes it so ugly, but rather that it's shot in such a flat and uninteresting way. The one saving grace is the fight scenes - choreographed by none other than 'John Wick' impresario David Leitch - which really do have a zip to them. This, naturally, just begs the question as to why he didn't just direct the whole thing in the first place. Tommy Wirkola's filmography highlights has been made up of a very middling English-language action movie - anyone remember 'Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters', by any chance? - and 'Dead Snow', a cult hit from 2009 involving Nazi zombies.
As mentioned, David Harbour is doing his best with the material, channelling all the put-upon energy he's used so effectively in 'Stranger Things' into a red suit and beard, while John Leguizamo is clearly having a ball playing a total cartoon villain. Beverly D'Angelo, likewise, is doing what she can to play up her ice-queen mother and seems to be enjoying it. Yet, the dialogue has a clunkiness to it, and as mentioned, the plot should be far more simple than it really is. Eventually, you spend the movie picking apart the plot ho-ho-ho-holes than enjoying the damn thing.
'Violent Night' does have its moments of fun and frivolity, and seeing Santa Claus beating the shit out of armed terrorists is good fun, but the joke runs out of steam far too early and what you're eventually left with is a really poor knock-off that lacks in craftsmanship. You want it to be so much better than it is, but 'Violent Night' just never has the sparkle of magic needed.