Hallelujah, Christmas came early this year. The wildly fun “Violent Night” gleefully cuts through the heart of traditional holiday fare.
The wintry season has been bloated with holiday movies for as long as there have been cable networks to screen them. Perhaps you, too, caught It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – twice in one night on one network – on Black Friday. Perhaps you, too, saw that one Christmas movie on the Hallmark Channel. You know the one: the snow starts falling in the last five minutes just as the would-be lovers realize that they can’t live without one another?
We love stories like that because those are the ones that fill the heart with holiday joy.
Seasonal snowy movies have become as traditional as the tribal rituals so many families embrace this time of year. And every once in a while, a family will adopt a new tradition: opening a single gift on Christmas Eve, finding the pickle in the Christmas tree, and eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve.
And sometimes, Hollywood breaks with tradition, too.
Violent Night is the latest action comedy from director Tommy Witkola, and this film – stuffed like a Christmas stocking with comedy, cruelty, and caring – is one of the best gifts of its kind that you’ll find waiting for you at theaters.
Whether you asked Santa Claus for it or not, Violent Night is a riotously unapologetic cinematic treat for this holiday season.
It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s beginning to look a lot like the last Christmas for several people.
The wealthy Lightstone family has gathered together for the holidays at their heavily-secured mansion, though many of them don’t seem filled with the prerequisite Christmas spirit. Rumors abound that the family’s matriarch (Beverly D’Angelo, in a role 180 degrees from the charmingly patient Ellen Griswold) may turn over the fortune’s reins to a successor, and the family vultures are naturally circling ahead.
Little Trudy (Leah Brady) has only one Christmas wish: that her parents (Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder) might get back together.
These trivialities, though, take a back seat when the villainous leader (John Leguizamo) of a small army of assassins sets his sights on the fortune allegedly nestled away within the compound.
Even Santa Claus (David Harbour) is at the end of his rope, disenfranchised with a singular holiday that’s come to mean more about greed and gifts than jingle bells and joy.
Last Christmas, indeed.
What begins, then, as a quiet hostile assault on Christmas Eve will likely turn into a bloodbath as Santa Claus – suddenly inspired by young Trudy’s unwavering belief in him – trades in his evening of gift-giving for a glorious, even gory, rescue mission that could only be called divine.
Fandango must have momentarily basked in its cleverness when it called Violent Night “Die Hard meets Home Alone.”
To Fandango’s credit, the comparison is rather spot-on, even obviously so.
That very analogy may, unfortunately, keep some moviegoers away from the movie altogether, which would be a shame. The comparison is no mistake and certainly not an example of filmmakers devoid of ideas mashing up two hallowed holiday classics like widescreen chocolate and peanut butter.
On the contrary, the film is an unabashed homage to the adventures of John McClane and Kevin McAllister.
At one stage in the film, Scrooge (Leguizamo) chats it up with violent playfulness over walkie-talkies with Saint Nick, and Santa and Trudy communicate similarly, a la John McClane and Powell. It’s no mystery even that Trudy’s blood-spilling booby traps that she sets for her assailants are inspired by her screening of Home Alone from the night before.
Truly, to dismiss Violent Night for its referential flourishes is to dismiss any Hallmark Christmas film that liberally begs, steals, or borrows from another movie eerily like it.
Violent Night isn’t here to reinvent the Christmas movie, and it never touted itself as doing so.
Instead, it’s here to remind viewers that if you can’t settle the debate as to whether or not the movie Die Hard is a Christmas film, you won’t soon resist calling Violent Night a Christmas film once the blood mist finally settles.
Unfortunately, the particular sleigh ride to bedlam is a rather lengthy one.
The film’s screenplay is bogged down with backstories, motivations, and deceptions that are fleshed out in the first half of the film, prolonging the wait for the promised violence to come.
But once established, the movie gets to what attracted the audience in the first place: John Wick-fast, gooey creative kills at the hands of Kris Kringle himself.
One particular scene of violence is choreographed so meticulously that Santa appears to cut the number of bad guys more than in half in a matter of seconds, and yet the kill shots are never repetitive, never melodramatic.
The picture’s joy is brilliantly resplendent here and is only matched by the film’s two most obvious stars.
Leguizamo – never one to shirk from the spotlight – dominates every scene in which he inhabits, bringing raw, unbridled energy to every scripted line he is assigned.
Meanwhile, Harbour is clearly enjoying himself throughout the production, engrossed not only in the film’s frenetic action sequences but also in the movie’s ever-beating heart.
At the center of this seemingly simple premise is a lifeblood that reminds viewers that this Christmas film – with its holiday, with its family – could never be saved without belief. The Lightstones have for too long retreated into their greed rather than appreciating the sense of family they possess. Santa Claus himself questions his role in a holiday that no longer represents what it once did.
But if Violent Night suggests that a superhero could save Christmas Eve from a band of armed burglars, Santa Claus is not so much the savior of this snow-covered story as belief itself. Only by believing in that which is good can ultimately save us now …
… especially when Goodness is armed with a really heavy hammer with no other purpose than to dispatch human lives gruesomely.
Because we love stories like that.
Those are the ones that fill the heart with holiday joy.