Sometimes the holiday season can just be a little too sweet. It’s why stories like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” endure, or movies like “Bad Santa” find success — not everyone wants to gulp down saccharine sentiments at Christmastime.
Enter “Violent Night,” in which David Harbour plays a murderous Santa Claus. Borrowing heavily from “Die Hard” and “Home Alone” (both of which are name-checked), and utilizing every Christmassy saying and pun, throw in some extra bloody kills, and voila: a holiday actioner for the gore-hounds. This is a star vehicle, or rather, a sleigh, built specifically for Harbour, who gamely commits to the performance, and is probably the only actor currently working in Hollywood who could pull this off. The result is amusing enough, but it’s as cinematically substantive as a sugar cookie.
Directed by Tommy Wirkola, who has experience shooting wintery wonderland horror (“Dead Snow”) and ironically violent fairy-tale updates (“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”), “Violent Night,” written by “Sonic the Hedgehog” writers Patrick Casey and Josh Miller, is cobbled together from the recognizable parts of other Christmas classics. References and riffing are fun, but in “Violent Night,” it feels like we can see the mechanics of the gears cranking, like watching the math done on screen, which saps the bonkers fun that might have been had here.
During the first act setup, we get to know our boozy Santa, who is filled with holiday ennui and cynical about the capitalist consumption of Christmas. After a stop at a pub in Brighton, England, he ends up stranded at the wealthy Connecticut compound of the Lightstone family, a monstrous bunch of oil billionaires, with one sweet, Santa-loving kid, Trudy (Leah Brady). A group of holiday code-named criminals led by “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) infiltrate the Lightstone Christmas Eve festivities and proceed to hold them all hostage with the intent of making off with the $300 million in the basement until Santa and Trudy go all John McClane and Kevin McCallister on them.
There are a few inspired moments, punchy jokes, and Wirkola keeps the camera moving, but the scenes keep cutting away from the action, and the pace drags, which is a bit odd for such a slight, sub-two-hour action movie. You keep waiting for things to get a little more wacky and weird, but there’s a wild-card element that’s missing from this killer Santa movie, which just feels very by the numbers.
Perhaps it’s the need to preserve all the heartwarming stuff, even though it is somewhat hard to buy that a child who kills bad guys with booby traps manages to remain on the Nice List. Santa himself is given a bit of interesting backstory, but there’s just not enough of it. Harbour and Leguizamo are great together, especially when they’re arguing about the meaning, or validity, of Christmas.
Ironically enough for a story about Santa growing weary of greed, “Violent Night” wants to have it all — the blood, the foul-mouthed humor and the happy holiday ending about the true meaning of Christmas. Without committing to a tone, it all cancels each other out in the end. At least “Bad Santa” had the nerve to go all the way naughty. “Violent Night” tries to be both naughty and nice, and as it turns out, when it comes to those lists, it’s either one or the other.
2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references)
Running time: 1:41
How to watch: In theaters Friday