It’s over. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is for the most part dead. Yeah, there might be a late holiday party or an office get-together but those in attendance won’t really have their hearts in it. The stockings are coming down. The menorah has gone out. Relentless winter continues regardless. And your slowly dying tree looks even more sad in your living room. Store away the ornaments. Polish off the cookies. The Christmas spirit is all but deader than Jacob Marley’s doornail.
But soft! Christmas, as it turns out, still had one last gasp of holiday cheer! On December 31st, my wife and I went to an actual movie at an actual theater! There was a curious seasonal film that just tickled our fancy in a way that seemed inappropriate at first, but certainly won out the day. It had heart, it had spirit, it had plenty of bloodshed. It truly made for a Violent Night.
As per my usual nonsense, I will be doing scattershot, whatever-strikes-my-fancy, type of comments about the film. Given that this is a recent movie, I will warn about spoilers right off the bat, but as this is about Santa Claus battling armed goons on Christmas Eve, I think you folks are tough enough to handle something as piddly as spoilers.
- Since the children’s grandmother offered to watch over them, it certainly put a shine on our viewing experience. My wife and I would have reveled in any flickering image on the screen at that point. Even the theater ads provoked a reaction akin to one that comes from reuniting with a long-lost love. (I mean, the last time my lovely bride and I went out to a movie together, it was for The Rise of Skywalker, so obviously we’ll watch any lump of something worse than coal that comes along.)
- The opening titles proved to be weird until we realized that we were in the wrong film. This was not our fault as the theater sign was malfunctioning. While I’m sure that The Whale is a marvelous drama, with some eye-opening performances, I am also 84% certain that it wasn’t going to scratch that “we haven’t had a good Die Hard since 1995, so let’s see what you’ve got” vibe that I had. We quickly got over to the correct theater.
- There have been some goofy premises for films. Christmas movies are no exception. “Um…this guy is about to commit suicide, so then like this angel suddenly comes out of nowhere to show him what a wondrous life he’s had. No? Hm. What about there’s this guy that accidentally kills Santa so that means he becomes the new Santa? What about that, J.P.? I see at least three movies we could get out of that one!”
- You wanted to make a Die Hard rip-off, eh? I don’t blame you. The key is finding a twist that will make your film stand-out amount the flood of other wannabe comers to the John McClane throne. So instead of having an off-duty NYC cop, or a Navy SEAL cook, or a kickboxing Belgian on hand to suddenly deal with terrorist mercenaries in graphic ways that would make Jason Voorhees nod in approval, the producers decided to have terrorists attack a home where the actual Santa Claus is delivering presents at the same time?! And speaking of Christmas miracles, they got this film made! Whatever genius who won the day in that pitch meeting could sell icemakers in the Yukon.
- By the way, well-deserved bonus points for managing to do all this without needing Nicholas Cage in yet another paycheck role. Oh, I’m sure that Cage would have done it if given the chance, but that all but guarantees a whole other level of the bottomless pit of straight to video Redbox and/or subpar streaming hell for your release.
- Besides, it turns out that David Harbour was a magnificent choice to play Kris Kringle. Not since the original Miracle on 34th Street have I truly been touched by someone playing Santa Claus in a film. This is not hyperbole or sarcasm folks, Harbour gives a great performance, with vulnerability, ingenuity, and wit. This movie has such an outlandish premise that playing Santa could have disintegrated into a scenery chewing, ham-fisted portrayal, but to his eternal credit, Harbour keeps it grounded. He carries this film on his back and while I might not believe in Santa anymore, I wholeheartedly believe in Harbour as Santa.
- Always a treat to see Beverly D’Angelo in a film! In a wonderful holiday twist, casting a member of the Griswold family to play a colossal bitch of a matriarch at Christmas was a terrific choice. If they could have had a portrait of Chevy Chase as her deceased husband in the study, it would have been icing on the gingerbread.
- Come to think of it, there are plenty of holiday seasonal callbacks in the movie. Aside from the Christmas Vacation/Ellen Griswold connection, Home Alone is referenced directly and even becomes part of the plot as well. Die Hard is an obvious reference, but there’s a nice Die Hard 2 one too. (Hello, lethal icicle! I’ve missed you!) Harbour says “Naughty!” so much it could be a direct pull from Silent Night, Deadly Night. Brendan Fletcher plays a psycho henchman and Fletcher was in Freddy Vs. Jason where he played the brother of Zach Ward…who played Scut Farcus in A Christmas Story! All right, that last one might be a reach, but there are references aplenty throughout the film if you just go looking in your stocking for them.
- The mom & dad & their child, played by Alexis Louder, Alex Hassell, and Leah Brady respectively, are great as well. Especially Leah Brady who manages to bring plenty of heart to this violent comedy action film. There is always the potential pitfall that a kid in an action movie, or any movie for that matter, can be an annoying overwritten character with dialogue that should be coming out someone twice if not three times the age of the actor. But Brady avoids the traps and does spectacular here, so kudos to her! Her rapport with Harbour also comes across as very sweet and genuine. It is also a nice reminder of the connection that Bruce Willis had with Reginald VelJohnson in Die Hard. Golly, I’m getting misty-eyed all over again! Must be all the dust in here…
- Getting back to ham-fisted performances, let’s talk about John Leguizamo. I like him and following in the footsteps of Alan Rickman or Die Hard with a Vengeance’s Jeremy Irons or Speed’s Dennis Hopper and the like can be daunting indeed. I think Leguizamo does well with what he’s got and in fact should have been given more to do. That’s not his fault, that’s a script issue, but more on that later. Despite that, Leguizamo is clearly enjoying himself and he bounces well off Harbour.
- Whatever I have in the way of gripes come down to my being an uninformed armchair quarterback, but isn’t that the entire point of the internet? To complain and claim expertise regardless of background, education, and/or merit? Wonderful! I’m more than qualified to make unqualified opinions! Sounds like a good time to dive into some spoilery territory here as well, so reader beware!
- I just have some story tweaking that I would do here and there. There is so much good here in Violent Night, there truly is. One complaint I have is that the stakes don’t seem high enough. Part of that is probably due to the budget constraints. This is not an A-list, Spielbergian-level project with mind-blowing star power. And that’s okay, don’t get me wrong. It just seems off that Leguizamo would undergo that much effort and planning into hatching this scheme for just $300 million. In Die Hard, Hans Gruber had a smaller team and was going for 640 million in 1988 dollars! In these inflationary times, while acknowledging that $300 million is nothing to sneeze at, I would hope to go for a bigger golden goose.
- There’s also a seeming backstory that is missing as to why Leguizamo has the knowledge about this money. If he were one of D’Angelo’s disgruntled former employees, who is really in this for deep personal reasons aside from the money, then I’m okay with that. Now I know that, yet again going to Die Hard for the parallel, Hans Gruber also didn’t have a huge backstory beyond wanting to steal the bearer bonds and end up on beach earning 20%, so I can give somewhat on this. I just think that it would have added a bit more to Leguizamo’s motivation.
- Also, I didn’t really feel like any of the family was truly in danger. If Leguizamo’s team had snuffed a more vital member rather than the one-note character they did kill, I’d be more on the edge of my seat. There was a flood of unnamed forgettable staff at the house that were shot, but I wasn’t invested in them. Granted, the mercs did whack the kindly gatekeeper guard, but he wasn’t that well established beyond being nice to Leah Brady and her parents.
- Santa using his naughty/nice list for getting some impromptu intel on the terrorists he’s dealing with is a touch I like. Also, him using his Mary Poppins-like sack full of gifts to find something to use as an improvised weapon was a treat as well!
- I also appreciate the background info on St. Nick that was included. Showing that he was an asskicker from a thousand years ago was a nice touch. Given the amount of time that he’s been delivering gifts with powers that even he doesn’t really understand that much, it is reasonable to assume that he’s a bit out of fighting shape when this event goes down. But when he throws down, he throws down!
- That’s my biggest qualm with the movie and it just involves a rearrangement of current scenes. Okay, so here goes: when the mercs first shoot at Santa on the roof, the reindeer take off without him, apparently abandoning Santa to his circumstances of having to deal with these gunmen. Please remember this point. Now when Santa mentions his past to the little girl, he says that he loves Mrs. Claus and that in his darker, bloodier life before he was St. Nick, he used a huge hammer to bash up the opposition. Later when Santa finds a sledgehammer in a garage, it seems to motivate him to get back in to fight, and he does indeed go through a well-armed group of mercs without trouble. In fact, it is rather satisfying to see jolly ol’ St. Nick back in his element, tactically bludgeoning away. Then when Leguizamo and all the baddies have been dispatched, the reindeer suddenly return! After they had fled the roof, the reindeer had gone to the North Pole, got his old beloved hammer along with a note from Mrs. Claus, and Santa can now finish off Christmas Eve delivering his gifts.
- Now while that was a just fine ending, allow me to posit that it could have been even better with one simple change: simply have the reindeer appear with Santa’s old hammer and the note from Mrs. Claus earlier instead of Santa finding a random sledgehammer in the garage. Having Santa see his old hammer and the note from his wife would give him encouragement, give the audience the chance to see his bloody hands tighten satisfactorily around the sledgehammer, and give the producers the opportunity to crank the music for a “oh, hell yes!” moment. It would be as if Thor entered the room at that moment to start a bloody rampage. Even have Comet and Cupid take out a few of these guys too! It would make for an even more satisfying scene.
- I would do myself a disservice if I didn’t mention the large elephant in the room: Scrooged. Remember the TV ads for the fake programs at the beginning of the movie? Remember the movie opens with the fake promo for terrorists taking over Santa’s workshop? Remember that Mrs. Claus breaks out the weapons and there’s Santa holding an M-16? Remember that only Lee Majors can stop them and he’s gunning the terrorists down at the North Pole? Remember how incongruous and ludicrous the idea of Santa taking on terrorists seemed to be in 1988? Remember that was the same year Die Hard came out? If you remembered all that, then you’ve got a great memory!
But this is mere quibbling. Violent Night was an entertaining action film that paid off on its premise. And you can’t say that about every movie now, can you? These folks wanted to make a movie about Santa fighting terrorist/mercenaries and oh by gosh and by golly, they did it! They even managed to add some real touching moments into it which I was completely unprepared for. It isn’t easy to melt my cynical heart, but Violent Night made it grow three sizes that day.
My wife and I heartily enjoyed our matinee out at Violent Night. Afterwards, we ordered pizza, got home, had a lovely bottle of sparkling wine, and did what any loving married couple does on New Year’s Eve: my wife went to bed early, while I stayed up watching nonsense on YouTube. And as I fell asleep with dreams of sugarplums dancing in head, I remembered that Christmas perhaps, meant a little bit more…because I heard they’re thinking about a sequel!