Wednesday, December 21, 2022

"Violent Night": review

Santa spooks his captors by talking about their childhoods.

A shameless blend of "Die Hard," "Home Alone," and any number of naughty-Santa films, 2022's "Violent Night" is a bloody, gory Yuletide action-comedy that shares a great deal of DNA with Mel Gibson's "Fatman." The mythology, though, is decidedly different because, in this movie, the being we know as Santa began life as a Viking warrior named Nikamund the Red, who slaughtered countless warriors centuries ago with his trusty hammer Skullcrusher. How Santa transitioned from a mass killer to a deliverer of gifts and an upholder of the Christmas spirit is never explained, and his bloody past makes one wonder how he ever became a saint. At a guess, you're not supposed to think about that. The film is directed by Tommy Wirkola ("Dead Snow," which I've heard about), and it stars David Harbour as a bulky, lurching, drunk, and cynical Santa. Also starring are John Leguizamo, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Edi Patterson, Cam Gigandet, Leah Brady, and Beverly D'Angelo.

We meet Santa on Christmas Eve. He's in an English pub, liquoring up, muttering bitterly about the greedy acquisitiveness and selfishness of today's kids. Another gentleman dressed as Santa commiserates with him as Santa lists everything he hates about Christmas—especially the kids. But before jolly old Saint Nick heaves himself up from the bar and heads to the roof, he hands the older female bartender a gift for her grandson. The bartender chases after him: Santa is drunk and, from her point of view, has no business being on the roof. Thinking he might jump or fall, she instead catches a glimpse of the man flying into the night with his magical reindeer; Santa circles back toward her and, from high in the sky, drunkenly heaves the contents of his guts onto the poor bartender's face, but she smiles, anyway, now that she knows he's the real Santa Claus. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, the super-rich Lightstone family is gathering for Christmas. At the party are Jason and Linda Lightstone (Hassell, Louder); Jason is the family's eldest son, but he and Linda have grown estranged (we never find out what happened). The two have a daughter named Gertrude but nicknamed Trudy (Brady), and Trudy is still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. The family matriarch, also named Gertrude (D'Angelo, old and barely recognizable under all that plastic surgery), arrives and establishes her dominance as the resident haughty bitch, used to throwing her weight around and even calling a senator a "piece of shit" over the phone. Everyone in the family, except Linda the outsider, sucks up to the older Gertrude. What the family doesn't know is that most of the staff catering and supervising the Christmas gathering are trained thieves and paramilitary operatives, all intent on stealing $300 million from the family vault. The leader of the robbers is Mr. Scrooge (Leguizamo), whose real name is Jimmy Martinez. Santa, who does indeed eat the cookies and drink the milk left out for him (not liking most of it), arrives at the Lightstone residence, loves the homemade cookies, raids a liquor cabinet, and settles into a vibrating massage chair just as the robbery is going down and hostages are taken. What happens next is easy enough to predict: Santa has to dig deep down into his warrior past to take out the bad guys and rescue the Lightstone family, especially Trudy, who communicates with Santa via walkie-talkie (Santa gets his walkie-talkie from one of the mercenaries he kills).

Much of the movie is spent focusing on adults who doubt Santa's existence while also giving us a cynical Santa who has lost his faith in the Christmas spirit. Some of the adults, like Jimmy Martinez, are given reasons for hating Christmas. With Trudy's help, though, Santa becomes less bitter and starts to appreciate the power of Trudy's belief in him. Despite the bloody pile of bodies that Santa racks up as he rampages through the thieves, the sweetest aspect of the movie is the way it focuses on Trudy and Santa's whispered exchanges—at first via walkie-talkie, but finally face to face. The two trade stories and comfort each other. Santa confesses that he and Mrs. Claus, despite being together a long time and loving each other, are going through a rough patch. Trudy talks to Santa about the pain of watching her parents fight. Her one Christmas wish is for them to make up so the three can be a family again.

Santa has magical tech to help him remember who's on the naughty/nice lists, but he also seems able to recall biographical information about the people he meets just by looking at them. After being captured and tied up, at one point, Santa recites facts from the childhoods of some of his captors, unnerving them as he describes their wishes or certain painful incidents from their past. But in the mythology of this movie, belief in Santa is not enough to save you if you're a robber, a kidnapper, or a murderer. Santa, as his Viking self, delivers Old Testament justice to the bad guys. Jesus, meanwhile, gets barely a mention in the film despite being the reason for why there's a Christmas at all. A villain or two screams "Jesus Christ!" before being killed by Nikamund the Red, and the one explicit depiction of the savior involves the use of an abstract baby Jesus from an abstract Nativity scene as a cudgel to kill someone.

For all of Santa's murderousness, he does do many of the things we expect of the typical Santa Claus, like laughing with a Ho-ho-ho (after one bad guy is exploded with a grenade, this becomes a Ho-ho-holy-shit) or roll-calling his reindeer ("On Dasher! On, Dancer!"—etc.). These moments provide a comical contrast with the gory destruction we've witnessed. Little Trudy, meanwhile, seems okay with Santa as a warrior. Inspired by a recent viewing of "Home Alone," she helps Santa take down a couple baddies in the family attic by making some traps that are arguably crueler and cleverer than those from the Macaulay Culkin film. When Santa has to kill a nearby mercenary in the attic, he asks Trudy to turn around, cover her eyes and ears, and sing "Jingle Bells" loudly until the deed is done. For all her cuteness, Trudy has a bit of a mean streak, but she aims it solely at the bad guys.

While the Cris Cringle (sic) we get in "Fatman" seems close to being some sort of metaphysical being, one gets the impression that Nikamund the Red is human but sustained by "Christmas magic," a phrase that pops up several times throughout the story. Santa claims not to understand how the magic works, but he's learned to trust in it, even at his most cynical. Whatever the magic is, it helps him drink a near-infinite amount of alcohol and down millions of cookies plus gallons of milk, all of varying quality.

Santa's character arc, going from bitterly jaded to almost joyful, is the most sensible arc in the film. Trudy doesn't change much: she's a good-hearted little girl who only wants her parents back together. There was a chance to give John Leguizamo's character a decent arc, but he remains evil to the bitter end. The rest of the Lightstone family has little to do but act like the obnoxious money-grubbers they are, and most of those family members haven't changed much by the end of the film: even after the Lightstones come to understand that the man in the Santa suit is the real Santa, one gets the feeling that this knowledge has done nothing to redeem this dysfunctional group.

The scripting could have been tighter and funnier, and more could have been explained (e.g., how Santa delivers all his goodies in one night), but there were plenty of laugh-out-loud line deliveries and story moments that ought not to have worked but did. I surprised myself by how much I laughed. "Violent Night" owes a huge creative debt to the "Die Hard" template. You've got Santa as John McClane, Trudy as Officer Powell, and Mr. Scrooge as Hans Gruber, plus a truckload of disposable villains, only some of whom get to have character moments. The final third of the movie suffered somewhat from being too typical for an action flick, but the action held my interest all the same. Some of David Harbour's lines were a bit lame, and in those moments, I had trouble telling whether this was a script problem or a line-delivery problem. All in all, though, the film was entertaining.

The character of Jason Lightstone is played by British actor Alex Hassell. I kept staring at him because he looked so familiar, but it was only when I looked him up that I saw he'd played Transparent in "The Boys," a villain who gets blown up after C-4 is stuffed into his ass. Both in "The Boys" and "Violent Night," Hassell uses an American accent. He's not bad.

Overall, the comedy is paced well and hits its marks proficiently. Characters are colorful enough to be distinct, especially Santa (who's pretty fuckin' foul-mouthed) and little Trudy. "Violent Night" is nobody's idea of a great, original, or surprising movie, and there's a lot about the story that I would change, but if you're in the mood for some good, stupid fun with plenty of digital blood, you could do worse than watch this film.

No comments: