Reviewed by Paul Gibbs
Lately I’ve been noticing an increase in early 2000s (I do not live in a high school production of The Music Man and will therefore never embrace the term “aughts”) nostalgia. I’m old enough to find that very surreal for many reasons, but one is that it seems pop culture never fully moved on from ’80s nostalgia to ’90s nostalgia. Sure, we’ve had three Jurassic World movies and there’s a Disney+ series based on Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause movies (everyone stop adding an e to the end of “Clause”, it was a pun that was specific to that movie), but where are the Super 8 and Stranger Things style pastiches of ’90s pop culture? It’s certainly possible I’ve missed some, but I definitely caught ’90s nostalgia running wild in the dark action/comedy Violent Night. Sure, it’s clearly inspired by Die Hard, which was released in 1988, but this exercise in yuletide mayhem has more visually and tonally in common with 1990’s Die Hard 2, from snow and snowmobiles to a gruesome tendency to stab villains in the eye with makeshift weapons. And the other clear inspiration, Home Alone, was also released in 1990.
David Harbour stars as Santa Claus, who begins the film as a depressed alcoholic who fears cynicism and commercialism (there’s a lotta bad isms out there) have ruined modern children and destroyed the spirit of Christmas. At the same time, an obscenely wealthy and unlikeable family known as the Lightstones are gathering at matriarch Gertrude Lightstone’s (Beverly DeAngelo) mansion. Just as Santa arrives at the mansion, so does a crew of murderous and heavily armed thieves lead by sneering Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo). The lone goodhearted member of the Lightstone clan, sweet little Trudy (Leah Brady) asks Santa for help, and before you can say “Yippiecaiee”, the not-so-jolly old elf is fighting them off killers like a one-man army.
The fact that such an outrageous premise works at all is mostly thanks to Harbour, who seems to be having the time of his life in nearly every role he plays, and provides both fun and gravitas to his portrayal of Old Saint Nick. He pulls off the comedy, the action and even the sentimental “Christmas Magic” stuff with equal aplomb. And the filmmakers deliver some darkly and brutally fun parodies of the over-the-top violence of ’90s action films that made me both cringe and laugh out loud. Unfortunately, the sequences centering on the Lightstone clan are far less successful. Screenwriters Pat Casey & Josh Miller seem to be going for a mix of the Bluths of Arrested Development and the Thrombeys of Knives Out, but without even the faintest hint of the wit or cleverness those modern classics achieved. Director Tommy Wirkola keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and while it’s focused on Santa, the film mostly works on its intentionally ridiculous level. But for me, those Lightstone sequences were a chore to get through.
Violent Night clearly wants to be a beloved cult movie, and to some degree it may succeed. There is all but certain to be a crowd that throws this into its annual Christmas rotation. And while the violence and gory as comedy sensibility isn’t for everyone, there’s no claiming that the movie is being sold as anything other than exactly what it is. if you choose to see a Christmas movie called Violent Night, it’s on you. For me it was just good enough as a holiday-themed sendup of the Die Hard subgenre (which was definitely a ’90s thing) to be an enjoyable guilty pleasure for one viewing. It reminded me of the silly fun I had with Snakes On a Plane, another aspiring cult classic I haven’t felt the need to revisit.