David Leitch and Kelly McCormick have produced their fair share of bloodthirsty action films, but none of them have been quite as fun as Violent Night. Starring David Harbour as the most kick-ass version of Santa Claus the world has ever known, the movie centers around a single Christmas Eve with more death and destruction than any one household should produce. Now an alcoholic on the verge of quitting his centuries-long commitment to gifting children toys, Santa finds himself unexpectedly trapped in the home of a wealthy family held captive by ruthless mercenaries. In order to escape and save the innocents inside, the once-jolly old St. Nicholas must tap into a part of himself long forgotten and coat the floor with as many bodies as he can.
Yes, Violent Night is every bit the delightfully brutal slaughter-fest one might hope it would be. There’s a moment in the film when the audience can tell it’s about to kick into high gear, and when it does, it absolutely does not disappoint. Tommy Wirkola‘s twisted direction results in some of the most creative, grotesque deaths put on screen in a long time, and the movie’s clear understanding of its own audience leads to more than a few cheer-worthy moments. Violent Night is the kind of experience best had with a crowd, or at least a few gore-positive friends, as its many well-choreographed action sequences beg for loud, visceral reactions. It’s hard to impart just how satisfying some of the kills in the film are without sounding like a complete psychopath, but the giddiness with which audiences will likely be discussing them on their way out of the theater is a testament to how expertly set up and executed much of the violence is.
That being said, the immense amount of general manslaughter encasing Violent Night is far from its greatest strength. As entertaining as it is to watch Santa Claus blast his way through villainous scum, none of it would work if there wasn’t a giant heart beating at the center of the story. It’s not the kind of film that’s vicious for the sake of being vicious, but rather an earned series of beats that aren’t afraid to indulge in a little body horror. Harbour thrives in this type of role, as the begrudging hero with a genuine soul and plenty of rough edges. His performance, though familiar, is extremely effective for what Violent Night has to offer, injecting the bouts of sadism with an authentic sense of compassion. The captive family, too, keeps the film somewhat grounded, along with providing a surprising amount of comedic relief throughout. Beverly D’Angelo, Edi Patterson, and Cam Gigandet are hilarious as the vile elite, while Alexis Louder, Alex Hassell, and, especially, the young actress who plays their daughter steal the show as good-natured people just trying to get through Christmas.
So much of Violent Night works so well, as long as one is willing to enter its world on the terms it provides. It is precisely what it should be, if not a little better. A fierce, quick-witted, black action comedy that revels in the inhumane without feeling inhuman. Weirdly enough, it often feels more like a warm-hearted Christmas flick than most of the productions that air on Hallmark year in and year out. The film is sure to become an instant classic for many, and hopefully, it won’t be the only one of its kind for too long. Wirkola, Leitch, and McCormick have something special going for them, and if Violent Night is any indication, there doesn’t seem to be a premise they shouldn’t be allowed to tackle.