One of my favorite Christmas poems growing up goes, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for a group of mercenaries sent to steal $300 million from a wealthy family; the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas would soon show up and rescue them in a violent and bloody nature.” Or, at least I think it goes something like that.
When it comes to Violent Night, that is exactly how the poem goes. Saint Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) in this story (played by Stranger Things and Black Widow star, David Harbour) is a rugged, drunk, and “at wit’s end” version of the jolly old elf. While drunk in an English pub he exclaims his displeasure for the world that’s overwhelming itself with greed and a lack of belief, questioning if his presence even matters anymore, and contemplating quitting Christmas altogether. In the meantime, Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell) gathers his daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) and wife Linda (Alex Louder) to celebrate the holidays at his mother Gertrude’s (Beverly D’Angelo) mansion with his sister Alva (Edi Patterson who is basically dipping back into the role of Judy Gemstone), brother-in-law Morgan (Cam Gigandet), and nephew Bert (Alexander Elliot). While Alva is there in hopes to be the next in line to run the family company, Jason is there to opt out of the running and with luck fix his broken relationship with Linda.
As Santa makes his stop at the mansion, a team led by the Christmas-hating Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo) takes the wealthy family hostage with a plan to steal $300 million from Gertrude’s personal vault that was given to her by the United States Government. Mr. Scrooge is smart and has prepared for every single possibility that could occur during the heist. After a few stray bullets cause the reindeer to fly off, Santa has to fight for himself, eventually hearing Trudy over a “magical” walkie-talkie calling for help. He agrees to help Trudy since she is on the nice list and still believes, and provides the one thing Mr. Scrooge didn’t plan for: a magical elf with the skills of a warrior.
Violent Night, written by Pat Casey and Josh Miller, is about what you would expect from the writers of the two Sonic the Hedgehog movies. There is quite a bit of raunchy humor throughout, some innocent heart, and plenty of callbacks to Christmas classics like Home Alone, Christmas Vacation (Beverly D’Angelo, after all), and yes, even Die Hard, which will certainly pull at the nostalgia strings. Sadly, the story at hand never quite elevates past the generic action movie tropes. For a large part of the second act, Casey and Miller attempt to add more depth – including a very on-the-nose and enigmatic sub-plot that attempts to explain why this version of Santa has these particular sets of skills – that slows the pacing and gets away from the action. Even if these are tender moments between Harbour’s Santa and Brady’s Trudy they happen to go on for far too long and take away from the biggest draw to this movie.
Which, getting into it quickly with a well-choreographed and shot long-take fight scene, it’s evident early on just what that draw will be. Luckily for Violent Night, when it does go fully into action mode, it is as rousing and audacious as an action movie has been all year. Coming from the producers of Nobody, there is no shortage of exciting fights and creative deaths that will play so well with a full audience, and a more than committed David Harbour helps as well. He has dipped his toes into this genre before with 2019’s more than disappointing attempt at a Hellboy reboot, and even to a slightly less extent 2021’s Black Widow. His Santa displays enough rage to make the fight scenes exactly as savage as needed but also channels the protective and charming nature that made his Emmy-nominated role of Jim Hopper in Stranger Things so beloved, and that makes his version of Santa Claus so believable. More than any of his works in the past, Violent Night is the movie that ultimately proves David Harbour is an action star.
Harbour’s commitment to this movie and the role is exactly what makes Violent Night a fun and bloody holiday treat. It might not change the genre in any way, falling into the same plot-based action tropes of other similar films, but it doesn’t have to. Between the callbacks and colorful kills, it still remains the best Christmas action movie since Die Hard.
Universal Pictures will open Violent Night only in theaters on December 2.