'Violent Night' Review: Santa Claus Action Flick Can't Sustain Its Clever Premise

The holiday action comedy “Violent Night” feels like it was sold in one of those pitch meetings from “The Player,” two guys in a room with Griffin Mill, excitedly announcing their brainchild: “It’s ‘Die Hard’ meets ‘Bad Santa!’” They presumably lit cigars and slapped each other on the back after settling on that premise, which is too bad; they should’ve used that valuable time to spin their high-concept pitch into something with some jokes or funny situations. “Violent Night” never does much more than execute its clever-ish premise, giving us the image of a drunken Santa tossing his cookies onto onlookers and saying things like “Ho-ho-holy shit!” There are occasional entertaining moments, most of them courtesy of star David Harbour. But the whole thing feels like a fake trailer on “Saturday Night Live,” stretched (and stretched, and stretched) out to 107 minutes.

The twist that separates Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s screenplay from (the far superior) “Bad Santa” is that this is no half-hearted mall impersonator; Harbour is playing the real deal, the genuine but disillusioned Kris Kringle, who says of the children he rewards, “They’re little shits! They don’t believe, they just demand, crave, consume!” And then he rides away on his sleigh, drinking like a sailor and whizzing off the side.

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The bulk of the action takes place in Greenwich, Connecticut, where the filthy rich and extremely dysfunctional Lightstone family is gathering for Christmas in their gigantic home – “the most secure private residence in the country,” we’re told. Santa arrives upstairs and has barely finished raiding the liquor cabinet (“That’s some pre-war shit”) when the caterers start shooting the security guards and John Leguizamo arrives to (poorly) fill the Alan Rickman role with dialogue along the lines of, “You can call me Mr. Scrooge. Bah humbug, motherfucker.” 

Santa, awakened by the ruckus, isn’t trying to save anybody – he’s just trying to get the hell outta there. But he becomes a thorn in the terrorists’ collective side, and yadda yadda yadda, you know the rest. Look, I love “Die Hard” as much as anyone, and understand its considerable influence, but Casey and Miller flirt with crossing the line from homage to outright plagiarism. It’s one thing to wink at the audience by name-checking a “Die Hard” Blu-ray as a Christmas gift; it’s another to make two of the key characters estranged but potentially reconciling parents, or for Santa to spend much of the movie communicating with their daughter via walkie talkie. 

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The shout-outs aren’t just limited to “Die Hard,” however. “Christmas Vacation” is echoed in the casting of Beverly D’Angelo as the matriarch; the kid in question is a “Home Alone” fan, so there’s a lengthy (and gorier, and death-ier) riff on its slapstick home invasion sequence; Leguizamo gets a “Gremlins”-style monologue about why he hates Christmas; and the central family drama, with worthless adult kids angling for their mother’s money even while they’re being held hostage, recalls “The Ref.” By the time it’s done, “Violent Night” feels less like a movie than a mixtape.

None of which would matter, again, if it were particularly funny. But it’s not, and not for lack of trying; much of the family is painted and played as characters, broadly and sweatily. The usually reliable Leguizamo is surprisingly mediocre as the villain, just unmoored, drifting aimlessly without any sense of direction or character. And the pace is all off, dragging perilously close to the full two-hour mark, right up to the very end, when they try to get all sweet and serious.  

That said, director Tommy Wirkola doesn’t really find his footing until the third act, when he abandons all semblance of comedy and just goes full-on Killer Claus. The fight scenes are competent; the gore and gunfire are plentiful, there are some reasonably clever kills (Santa’s pre-history as a Viking warrior is a nice touch), and the occasional kidding of action movie clichés (like Santa’s self-surgery scene) are welcome. Harbour, to his credit, gets some laughs out of sheer force of personality, and the occasional cock-eyed line reading (“Santa’s gonna eat through these guys like a plate full of cookies”). He seems to be having a good time. At least someone is. [C]

“Violent Night” arrives in theaters on December 2.