There have been several different takes on the beloved Santa Claus in cinema over the years. Finnish director Jalmari Helander made his Santa Claus into a demon-like monster in Rare Exports while Krampus leaned into the legend of the titular horned beast.
Tommy Wirkola’s Santa is distinctly human. Violent Night is a violent delight for those who prefer Die Hard to Will Ferrell’s Elf but don’t mind a bit of Home Alone -style slapstick comedy. It’s also campy and silly; Wirkola knows exactly what kind of a film he’s making, he’s in on the joke.
David Harbour plays Santa Claus, the real one. At the beginning of the film, he’s seen downing pints at a Bristolian pub before hopping on his sleigh and being flown away by his magical reindeer.
Santa is getting increasingly frustrated with how commercialised Christmas has become; he mostly delivers video games to greedy kids with the occasional blu-ray of Die Hard. His next stop is the Lightstones and young Trudy Lightstone still firmly believes in Santa Claus, even if the rest of her family has long forgotten the real meaning of Christmas.
So when the Lightstones are held captive by a group of robbers, who aim to get into the Lightstone family vault, Santa Claus vows to rescue little Trudy.
The most genius thing Wirkola and writers Josh Miller and Pat Casey do, is give Santa a kickass backstory, but never making it the focal point of the story. Think of it as the much needed seasoning on the film; it gives it flavour and makes it so much juicier.
This is also clearly the role Harbour was born to play. He has been excellent in Netflix’s Stranger Things and there are some elements of Hopper in his performance as Santa Claus, notably the sense of melancholy. Harbour is able to craft a singular take on the iconic character we all once believed in; he’s both funny and hardcore, weird but relatable.
The biggest issue facing Violent Night is that next to Harbour’s superb performance, no one else is able to stand out. John Leguizamo is a deliciously evil villain; you’d almost expect him to spontaneously grow a bigger moustache for some appropriate twirling.
Alexis Louder, so likeable in the otherwise forgettable Copshop, brings a lot of warmth as Trudy’s mother to this Christmas tale while Alex Hassell is serviceably funny as Trudy’s father Alex. Beverly D’Angelo gets a few funny lines as the Lightstone matriarch Gertrude but is mostly left on the sidelines as is Cam Gigadent and Edi Patterson as the remaining Lightstones.
Thankfully, Wirkola doesn’t waste too much time on the sentimentalities. Violent Night gets right to the good stuff, even if it takes a while for Santa to truly kick ass. But when he does, we’re in good hands. Wirkola directs the action sequences with glee and a sharp eye for violence.
Bad guys meet their ends gloriously and Violent Night doesn’t skimp on the gore. If anything, the film lacks stakes at times. There isn’t any real threat from Leguizamo’s bad guys and Violent Night follows the exact path you expect it to, narratively speaking.
The script can also be clunky and cringey, but that comes with the territory Wirkola explores. This isn’t a film to take seriously, because Wirkola doesn’t either. Violent Night is bad in all the best possible ways. It’s silly, ridiculous and stupid, but also riotous, arguably one of the most entertaining Christmas films. Who wants a serious film about Santa Claus when you can have David Harbour kicking ass and taking names?
Violent Night is in cinemas on 2 December.