Don’t sleep on a solid action film. “A Violent Night” doesn’t run long on story and won’t hear its name during awards shows, but that’s its job in the first place. This is the movie where you sit down with the drinks and snacks in your theater of choice, and proceed to set the brain to sleep mode while the screen serves up escapist entertainment.
Director Tommy Wirkola’s new Christmas B-side gift takes ridiculous carnage to another level, but it has a sly sense of humor to back up the punches and kicks. This is the movie where a grumpy Santa Claus (David Harbour, having some fun) throws a few pints down at a bar while cynically complaining about the modern world of technology and its wrath on nostalgia. He then steps in his reindeer’s shit, argues with another sleigh-pulling animal, and slides down a few chimneys tossing presents angrily into trees. Harbour’s bearded Saint has lost his jolly cheer, but there’s something about him we are drawn to.
When his route takes him to a large mansion stuffed with rich shitheads and dangerous gunmen (led by John Leguizamo) looking for $300 million stolen army money, things get interesting and bloody. Beverly D’Angelo, bless her ruthless soul, gets to channel her “Entourage” character here. She’s Gertrude Lightstone, the wealthy head of an estate that would make Elon Musk blush, and it’s her middling grown-up kids who are starting to reach for the vault password in mommy’s heart. D’Angelo makes that a heart of cold stone, and it’s a delight to see her tear characters apart with a roasting one-liner. Leguizamo’s men, posing as Santa’s mansion workshop crew, unleash hell and the movie kicks into action mode.
Cue Harbour’s unlikely but adept hero. This isn’t your grandpa’s Santa, and the actor makes you believe every bit of it–including a long-reaching backstory for his Saint Nick. If there’s one thing about Harbour that has always sung, it’s the charisma he can generate with just about material and any actor on screen. He’s also a very big man, standing tall and making a dad bod seem more desirable than Zac Efron ever could. Sheriff Hopper was such a rich character in Netflix’s “Stranger Things” due to his relatability. There are certain actors you simply won’t see eye to eye with when watching them work, and that’s completely fine. Part of the appeal, possibly.
Harbour brings you to his level, and revels in it. Watching him lick a candy cane down to a shank to kill more men with it than even John Wick could is appealing, but I could have watched a whole movie of his Santa eating cookies and testing massage chairs. Spitting out bad milk, pouring skim milk into a champagne cooler, and making a hilarious sound when he bites into homemade cookies is easy fun. “A Violent Night” leans into its ridiculousness with aplomb; it knows exactly what it is.
The movie lives in its own zip code, personality-wise, and that makes for a good time at the movies. Unbridled action with some laughs goes down well with popcorn and beer. The R-rating and adaptation-less script is worn like a badge of honor, exemplified by Harbour’s dedication to the role. Leguizamo hamming it up as the big bad allows the talented Columbian actor to unleash his versatile array of dialogue zingers. Pair that with D’Angelo’s fire and the quiet precision of Alexis Louder’s Lightstone family outsider, and you have a cast that gets it.
This isn’t a film with awards on its mind; it’s the movie you forget about the voting deadline while watching. “A Violent Night” has a few tricks in its bag. It also confirms that Harbour is a star who can carry a movie on his broad shoulders.
“A Violent Night,” which opened in theaters this weekend and should be streaming in relatively early 2023, reminds us that a good old-fashioned action film can be just as desirable as a three-hour movie about old-time Hollywood. What if Santa was real and carried a grudge against naughty-list bad guys? I find that quite desirable.