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One of the funniest jokes in "Scrooged," the sometimes uneven but vastly underrated 1988 Bill Murray riff on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, came right at the beginning with an artificial promotional trailer. Titled "The Night the Reindeer Died," it was a cheerfully cheesy bit of holiday carnage in which terrorists attempt to seize the North Pole until Lee Majors saves the day by gunning down the attackers while the guy in the red suit assures him he is being a good boy this year. As a distillation of the craven lengths that network television programmers go to attract viewers during the Yuletide season—in this case, by taking a made-for-TV knockoff of the typical Chuck Norris vehicle of that time and crudely slapping a thick seasonal glaze on the tip—it was admittedly a one-joke premise. But it happened to be a pretty funny joke, and since it only lasted for about two minutes, it was over before it could begin to wear out its welcome.
Now comes "Violent Night," a film that seems to have been designed by writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller and director Tommy Wirkola to answer the question of what a full-length version of "The Night the Reindeer Died" might have been like, augmented by over-the-top carnage that would have been unthinkable on television back then. The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a largely tedious cinematic lump of coal that unsuccessfully tries to stretch its one-joke premise out to 101 minutes in a tonally uneven attempt to position itself as a new alternative holiday classic. Instead, "Violent Night" is about as entertaining as listening to people argue about whether "Die Hard" is a Christmas movie or not (it isn't, FYI) while more or less wasting a genuinely committed performance from David Harbour as the Man in Red himself.
As the film opens, the supremely rich, powerful, and dysfunctional Lightstone family has gathered at the massive compound belonging to matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D'Angelo) to celebrate, to use the term promiscuously, the holidays. While her loathsome daughter Alva (Edi Patterson), her equally hateful son Bertrude (Alexander Elliot)—not a typo—and her idiot actor boyfriend (Cam Gigandet) blatantly curry her favor and her son Jason (Alex Hassell) and his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) are trying to work through their problems, only Jason's adorable moppet daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) still seems willing to embrace the holiday spirit. But, before long, the familial backstabbing is replaced by gunfire when a group of violent thieves led by a guy nicknamed Scrooge (John Leguizamo) arrive to steal $300 million they believe has been nefariously acquired by Gertrude and socked away in a theoretically impenetrable safe.
While all of this is going on, Santa—depicted here as filled with equal parts booze and self-loathing and contemplating packing in his holiday duties for good after one final run—happens to be in the house and winds up getting trapped inside when his reindeer take off during the initial mayhem. Although his first instinct is to flee, he realizes that Trudy is one of the stars of his nice list. He decides to pull himself together and rescue her, utilizing the skills for dispensing savage violence that he cultivated in his pre-Santa days, leading to several scenes in which he gruesomely dispatches the various bad guys using everything from a sledgehammer to a snow blower to a Christmas star tree topper jabbed into someone's eyeball. For her part, Trudy uses her skills of building booby traps that she developed from watching "Home Alone" to fend off the attackers in equally gruesome ways.
"Violent Night" is primarily comprised of bits and pieces borrowed from other holiday films of recent vintage. Most obviously, it intends to be some kind of hybrid of the aforementioned "Die Hard" and "Home Alone." The drunken, foul-mouthed, and cynical version of Santa depicted here, who we see projectile vomiting on a hapless victim while flying off in his sleigh during the pre-credit opening sequence, will no doubt inspire memories of Billy Bob Thornton in "Bad Santa." The dysfunctional family gathering interrupted by criminals is straight out of "The Ref." The presence of D'Angelo serves as a living reminder of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," though her part is a 180-degree turn from the warm and loving mother she played there. Hell, even the conceit of Santa fighting off bad guys in bloody fashion was done a couple of years ago in the weirdo project "Fatman," in which Mel Gibson's version of Santa fights off an assassin hired by a monstrously entitled brat who objected to receiving a lump of coal.
The problem with "Violent Night" is not its unoriginal premise but how little is done with it. Santa violently dispatching bad guys is a one-joke premise that could have been developed into something interesting, perhaps using gruesome physical violence as a way of commenting on the emotional brutality that holiday classics like "A Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life" traffic in. Instead, Wirkola is content to stick with the same joke of Santa killing bad guys in grotesque ways (and this is an undeniably hard-R film) that quickly grow tiresome. Even that might have worked on some fundamental level as a gory black comedy, but then the film ineptly tries for sentiment towards the end by asking us to care about the fates of the most hateful family members. "Violent Night" also seems weirdly reticent to fully exploit the notion that it's Santa Claus doling out the violence—there's only one point where he fully utilizes his unique powers against one of the attackers and, perhaps inevitably, it's the only kill that sticks in the mind afterward.
The one saving grace of "Violent Night" is Harbour's performance. Like the rest of the film, his character is basically a joke, but one he commits to impressively throughout, whether knocking off the new additions to his naughty list or communicating with Trudy over walkie-talkies. Granted, he may not replace Edmund Gwenn as the ideal movie Santa anytime soon, but his work here is the one sweet plum in the middle of an otherwise rancid cinematic pudding.
Now playing in theaters.
David Harbour as Santa Claus
Beverly D'Angelo as Gertrude Lightstone
John Leguizamo as Scrooge
Cam Gigandet as Morgan Lightstone
Edi Patterson as Alva Lightstone
Brendan Fletcher as Krampus
Alex Hassell as Jason Lightstone
Mike Dopud as Commander Thorp
Alexis Louder as Linda