Review: A Twisted Spin on Santa, Violent Night is Mostly Obvious Humor and Intermittent Action

From the production/stunt team that brought us such films as John Wick, Nobody, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw comes the Christmas-themed actioner Violent Night. The film borrows heavily from everything from Home Alone and Die Hard to Bad Santa and Christmas Vacation to bring us a dark, bloody, and sometimes humorous take on exactly how Santa Claus goes about his business on Christmas Eve, his apparently gruesome origin story, and how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the kids who really need his special brand of magic.

When we meet Santa (David Harbour, from "Stranger Things" and Black Widow), he’s taking a break from his Christmas Eve global traversing to get hammered in a bar, commiserating with mall Santas who think he’s one of them. By the end of the sequence, the real Santa is puking over the side of his sleigh in mid-air all over the pub’s owner, so you have some idea of the tone of this stocking stuffer. But the film is also the story of the wealthy Lightstone family, led by matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), who forces her grown children to grovel at her feet every holiday. While daughter Alva (Edi Patterson), her husband Morgan (Cam Gigandet), and their son are more than happy to oblige, Gertrude’s son Jason (Alex Hassell) is less inclined to do so. Jason has arrived with wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and daughter Trudy (Leah Brady), even though Jason and Linda are separated—they are trying to put on a brave face for Gertrude for reasons that are never entirely clear.

During the Lightstone celebration, a team of mercenaries breaks in, takes everyone hostage, and demands that Gertrude give them access to her secret basement vault supposedly holding hundreds of millions of dollars in cash. The team’s leader, codenamed Scrooge (John Leguizamo), has a particular bias against Christmas, so when the visiting Santa lands on the roof of the compound to deliver Trudy's presents, he’s none too happy to see Claus (not that he believes he’s actually Santa). During the course of the film, Santa makes it clear that he’s not entirely clear how his magic works, but he does know how to control it (things like his bottomless toy sack or rubbing his nose to go up the chimney are powers he possesses, but he’s not sure how it happens). 

But Santa is holding onto a few surprises as well. In the process of trying to keep the family from harm, he displays some genuinely badass fighting skills, and he doesn’t hold back if he thinks straight-up murder is called for. As the title likely suggests, the death and destruction in Violent Night is impressive, and it does not hold back on some truly cringe-worthy blood and gore. And Santa can take it as well as he can give it, getting punched, stabbed and just generally wailed on, and still managing to get back up and fight. He even sews up his own gaping stomach wound Rambo-style in one scene. Using Trudy as something of an inside man, Santa is able to slowly but surely take out the mercenaries, including one played by the great stuntwoman Mitra Suri, but the film holds on to a few surprises near the end, including one reveal about the cash and another about a rival team of mercenaries coming in to save the family.

Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, the Dead Snow films), Violent Night’s humor is pretty obvious most of the time, the screenplay and dialogue is sometimes abysmal, and about the only thing keeping the film afloat is Harbour's absolute commitment to this angry, bitter man who is ready to give up being Santa until he finds his purpose and realizes there are plenty of kids in the world who still need and respect his work. The flashbacks to Santa’s past, in which it is revealed that he was once some kind of medieval killer (complete with a massive hammer he called Skull Crusher) thousands of years ago is amusing, but it’s hardly a concept to build an entire movie around. And as for most of the family members, even the nicer ones, they feel tired and two-dimensional, and I honestly didn’t care if any of them lived or died, save Trudy.

It’s not often that I judge others on their opinions about movies. There are no right or wrong thoughts on most films, and I realize the standards for what makes a great Christmas movie are someone skewed, but Violent Night is far from a holiday classic, even for those of us who like their Santa stories a bit twisted. And it’s got too much downtime to even be a solid action movie. But it has its moments (the Home Alone tribute is particularly inspired), and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who finds some joy in this work. You should feel free to talk to me again once your tastes improve.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.