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Violent Night’s outlandish premise turns into a counterprogramming gift for the holiday movie season.

Santa Claus IS Real

Santa Claus (David Harbour)
Santa Claus (David Harbour)

Chalk this one up as the latest movie destined to become a Christmastime classic. Not in the sense of It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. No. That’s ridiculous. This one falls in line with the non-traditional classics like Die Hard, Gremlins, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Home Alone.

This isn’t the story of a John McClane-type agent dressed as Santa Claus being airdropped in to protect an overly entitled and ultra-wealthy family from an army of bad guys seeking to rob them of $300 million locked away in the family’s on-prem vault in their sprawling Greenwich, Conn. estate.

No.

This is about the real Santa Claus getting stuck in a nasty situation while trying to do his job of delivering joy to the deserving nice children and leaving those who’ve been naughty with a good old-fashioned lump of coal.

It’s a nutty idea that can only be born as the love child of the writers of the Sonic the Hedgehog movies (Pat Casey and Josh Miller), the director of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (Tommy Wirkola) and a producer of the John Wick series (David Leitch).

At first blush, it sounds like a terrible idea, a doomed cheesefest.

But, as a sort of Christmas miracle in its own right, Violent Night actually works rather well.

Not Home Alone

Make no mistake about it. This Santa Claus is dealing with some issues. He’s saddled with baggage that extends way beyond his magical sack of Christmas gifts.

This Santa cops a ‘tude.

The action starts in a pub in Bristol, England. There’s the usual chit-chat as a couple heavyset old men in the popular holiday costume of a white beard and a plush red suit cowboy up to the bar for a pint.

But one of the Santas is a little off. He’s getting drunk and prattling on about how this is gonna be his last Christmas. He’s done with the scene. He’s fed up with the spoiled kids who just want, want, want, want, want. It’s all about money and stuff. It’s all about entitlement.

Sigh. It’s a world he helped make.

Even so, as he departs, he leaves a gift for the barkeep’s son. Oddly enough, they’ve never met before and yet he also knows her son’s name.

Strange.

Then this guy goes up to the roof and takes off in a sleigh led by Donner, Blixen and all the rest (except for good ol’ Rudolph). And, in the spirit of this R-rated adult adventure, he vomits from the sleigh, showering the astounded barkeep with his tummy’s confutation.

Milk and Cookies and Bullets

Gertrude Lightstone (Leah Brady)
Gertrude Lightstone (Leah Brady)

As good ol’ not-so-jolly Saint Nick, David Harbour (Stranger Things) pulls it off with aplomb. The hook to his character is a backstory of a man who used to be greedy and mean — 1,100 years ago. His is a Nordic genealogy that — much like Thor, the God of Thunder — includes a beloved hammer. Santa calls his the Skullcrusher.

It’s a blend of polar-opposite genres that should be much more awkward than it is. It works because Wirkola owns it and goes for it. It’s an over-the-top idea matched with an over-the-top presentation.

Wrapping paper, ornament hangers and candy canes will never be seen the same way again after witnessing Harbour’s Santa mend his wounds with the ornamentation and mete out justice with the sugary holiday favorite.

Violent Night also benefits from surprisingly decent production values around the classic Santa Claus elements. Santa’s high-tech naughty and nice list, the reindeer, the sleigh’s flight scenes and the whole chimney thing are treated with a respect for the magical tradition they’ve held through the ages. And it’s nice that — amid all the chaos and violence — Santa acknowledges his legacy is one of magic, the kind of magic even he doesn’t understand.

Taking the Lumps

Scrooge (John Leguizamo)
Scrooge (John Leguizamo)

It would’ve been great to get even more of Santa’s dark backstory, which is presented by way of flash backs (waay backs) in bits and pieces. And there’s also a missed opportunity with the villains. John Leguizamo (John Wick) is the main heavy and he’s given the throw-away name of Scrooge. There’s also a maniacal thug nicknamed Krampus (Brendan Fletcher, The Revenant) who delights in torture, or at least the teasing of torture.

Those are classic elements from the dark side of Christmas holiday traditions — literature and folklore — that should’ve been explored with measures equal to the handling of Santa himself. Doing that would’ve transformed Violent Night with the possibilities of many more intriguing cultural references and backstories lying under the surface.

But, as it stands, Violent Night hits the mark thanks to a great performance from a little girl (Leah Brady, The Umbrella Academy) who desperately wants Santa to bring her estranged parents back together. Yeah. It’s a classic pukey-sweet holiday movie theme, but that’s why it works.

Violent Night throws the classic traditional holiday movie tropes in a blender with modern action movie sensibilities and a dash of spice courtesy of Beverly D’Angelo (Mrs. Griswold herself) and her salty performance as the family matriarch, Gertrude Lightstone.