December 21, 2022

Amid the deluge of sequels, remakes, and adaptations that suffuse theater screens, it’s always refreshing to see a film that makes you think: How has nobody done this before? It is precisely this reaction that director Tommy Wirkola’s latest movie, Violent Night, invokes.

David Harbour dons the red suit and pileus, portraying a grizzled, brutish Santa with a storied past. Dejected with the consumerist, video game-obsessed youth of the day, Santa has turned to alcohol. Shotgunning beers on his sleigh, he visits home after home on Christmas Eve, reluctantly dropping off gift-wrapped console games. Lamenting the bleak vestiges of Advent in America and the scant holiday spirit, he ruminates about hanging it all up forever.

With a pithy backstory established, the film wastes little time getting to the action. When Santa makes his stop at an opulent mansion, the Lightstone estate, he finds himself in the middle of a vault heist with the Lightstone family taken hostage. Initially reluctant to intervene, upon seeing their preteen daughter, Trudy (Leah Brady), in duress, Santa Claus decides to return to his old ways.

The “hardened tough guy dragged out of retirement after vowing not to kill again” trope has worked wonders for such films as John Wick, Commando, and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Wirkola cleverly applies the same idea to a Christmas movie, reimagining Santa as an immortal Norse berserker from the 11th century. The film doesn’t take itself seriously enough to divulge detailed lore; instead, it proffers brief vignettes and lets your imagination fill in the rest.

In a later scene, after suffering a knife wound to his hip (incurred while thrusting a tree-topper star through one of the mercenary kidnappers’ eyes and plugging the light into the electrical outlet, igniting his face), Santa takes his shirt off to stitch up his cut, revealing his scarred and tattooed chest. He’s noticeably out of shape, but beneath the blubber are mounds of dense muscles. Harbour may be the first actor who seriously trained and ate to play the erstwhile jolly Saint Nicholas.

Meanwhile, most of Santa’s macabre killing is set against the contrasting backdrop of twee Christmas music. Bryan Adams sings, “Something about Christmas time / That makes you wish it was Christmas every day / To see the joy in the children’s eyes,” as Santa revives his Viking spirit in a grisly showdown with the armed robbers. Did you ever think you’d see Santa Claus sucking on a candy cane to sharpen the tip to use as a makeshift weapon?

During his rescue mission, Santa establishes a radio line with Trudy, who has managed to escape and hide in the attic. Inspired by her favorite Christmas movie, Home Alone, she sets up traps for the hostage-takers. These, thanks to the film’s R rating for strong violence, result in far more satisfying payoffs.

Along with guiding Santa through passages in the hostile-patrolled home (a subtle homage to the film’s inspiration, Die Hard), Trudy also defines Santa’s character arc, as her steadfast belief in him and the Advent season more broadly reinvigorates Santa and reminds him that people still have faith.

If you enjoy holiday movies but bemoan their general lack of sledgehammer beatings and decapitations, Violent Night more than earns its name. It’s a ridiculous action comedy that captures all the quaint Christmas spirit of hallmark classics but delivers it in such an entertaining format that earns it a spot among the seasonal classics. Though admittedly a component of Violent Night’s appeal is its uniqueness among Christmas movies, I almost find myself wishing for a sequel. Maybe next year, Santa.

Originally Published at The Washington Examiner