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Violent Night (15)
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Screenplay: Josh Miller, Pat Casey
Starring: David Harbour, John Leguizamo, Alex Hassell
Review: David Stephens
As much as non-horror fans would like to believe it, as soon as Halloween is over, we don't all recoil with silent-film gestures of disgust when Christmas approaches. A good relationship exists between the festive season and creepy stuff. There's the British obsession with ghost stories being told that goes back to Dicken's A Christmas Carol. And, of course, there are psycho St Nicks in umpteen slashers and franchises. And there's the occasional studio Xmas foray into fear, such as any Black Christmas or 2015's Krampus. Now we have Violent Night, which is directed by Tommy Wirkola, who we will be forever grateful to for bringing us the two brilliant Dead Snow movies. Starring Stranger Thing's David Harbour in a born-to-play role as Mr Kris Kringle himself, this has been given a solid and well-promoted release in US and UK cinemas on only the 2nd day of December. So let's give ourselves an early present, shall we?
It opens on Christmas Eve with a drunken Harbour in a pub in Bristol, England of all places (questionable accents, ahoy). Seeming to be a commercial St Nick with a bad attitude, he berates the greediness of the modern world before going up to the roof and revealing that he is the real Santa McCoy as he pulls away on his sleigh. Meanwhile, back in the US of A, in New Hampshire, the Lightstone family gather for their regular Christmas get-together, presided over by bitchy billionaire matriarch Gertrude (a nearly unrecognisable Beverly D'Angelo). She actively encourages sibling rivalry between her son (Alex Hassell as Jason) and daughter (Edi Patterson as Alva). This has caused Jason to split with his wife, much to the distress of their daughter (Leah Brady as Trudy).
Nevertheless, Trudy is a good girl and can't wait for Santa. Unfortunately, "Mr Scrooge" (John Leguizamo) turns up with his merry band of ruthless mercenaries to loot the mansion. Lucky that Trudy is on Santa's nice list then, isn't it?
Fans of Wirkola's frozen Nazis and his take on Hansel and Gretel will know that he loves to mix sweet fairy-tale morality sentiments with over-the-top violence. And VN is the natural culmination of that approach. It's kind of surprising that Universal happily took on the global distribution and has promoted it so keenly, given how some violent St Nick films have been received in the past. This seems to have paid off though, as most reviews and feedback have been positive. The thing to understand about the movie and the tone is that it is both a sweet-hearted holiday film about the value of morality, as well as being a full-on fighty-actioner like Nobody or John Wick. With added blood and wince-worthy injuries. Lots of them. It mixes the cartoon violence of Home Alone (which is namechecked at least three times) with the in-your-face gore of an exploitation film.
A huge plus point is the presence of Harbour, who nails the world-weary persona of the big guy, which works when he applies "Season Beatings" to the mercs as well as when he shows emotional angst about his "naughty list" growing exponentially every year. It helps that he plays it remarkably straight and authentic whilst retaining that necessary twinkle in the eye when he interacts with Trudy. Speaking of which, young actor Brady is tremendous as the only innocent in the cast, managing to be endearing instead of annoying and providing some genuine sweetness to the proceedings. Kudos to Leguizamo as well, with his foul-mouthed and embittered "Scrooge" (all the crims have "jolly" code-names) being a fine ambassador for the season of good-kill. D'Angelo is obviously having a good time with her role as well.
And good kills there are. The nasty guys shoot people dead immediately. When Santa gets his groove on, people are spiked in the eye socket with stars, stabbed in the chest with candy canes, hammered in the head, nailed in the throat, and literally torn in half by "Christmas Magic". Along with the Sopranos-level of swearing and genital-based beatings (imaginative and literal use of a "Nutcracker" figurine), it ensures that the R-rating (or 15 in the UK) is very much earned. It helps that we don't have to sit through yet another full-length "superhero origin" story sequence for Beardy McBeardface and that his past as an immortal Nordic Warrior (with a hammer named "Skull-crusher"!) is kept satisfyingly vague. We just know that he's a badass when he needs to be.
There is a factor that keeps it from being wholly successful though. The schmaltz level is very much in evidence and is extremely earnest, keeping its roots with family-film sensibilities. This makes for a slightly overlong running time and a middle section where its wheels spin in the snow as Santa and Trudy bond. At times it threatens to become Miracle on 34th Street rather than Die Hard in a red suit. Which is fine for some people, but the tone and time spent on this angle feels just a tad too uneven. Other than that, and the Deus-Ex-Machina of magic, this nut-whacker would make an excellent double-bill with Krampus or another Xmas horror of your choice.
A lovely and committed central performance from Harbour and some extreme "Home Alone" blood-letting makes this bloody action-comedy worthwhile. The radical tonal changes grate a little, but otherwise, this is an offbeat offering that will please all big kids who still want to believe.
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