Violent Night: Stranger Things star David Harbour plays Santa in Christmas film with bloody twist and nods to Die Hard

David Harbour in a still from Violent Night, directed by Tommy Wirkola and co-starring John Leguizamo. There's more slaying than sleighing in this anti-festive Christmas movie, which steals shamelessly from Die Hard.
PHOTO: Screengrab/YouTube/Universal Pictures

3/5 stars

The Christmas movie is a perennial bauble hanging off the Hollywood tree, but just occasionally, an anti-festive film comes along.

Bad Santa was one, where Billy Bob Thornton played a foul-mouthed womaniser who earns his keep by dressing up as Santa. Then there was Die Hard, with its heist plot taking place on Christmas Eve.

Now we have Violent Night, a film that steals from both and then adds a little twist. In this case, its Santa Claus is the real deal.

Playing him is David Harbour, the Stranger Things star who has clearly worked hard on perfecting a credible Santa belly bulge. This St Nicholas is world-weary, depressed by the avarice that has come to define the festive season.

When we first meet him, he's drowning his sorrows in a bar, with his reindeer parked on the roof. Of course, no-one believes he's actually Santa, which allows him to slip around relatively unnoticed as he delivers presents to all the good kids.

When he lands at the luxurious Lightstone property, he has little idea of what awaits. Inside is an obnoxious rich family, led by Beverly D'Angelo's mean-spirited matriarch. Her grown-up kids spend the holidays fawning over her, in hope of inheriting money and power.

The rub comes when a gang of mercenaries invade, looking to raid the vault. Leading the pack is John Leguizamo's ruthless criminal, who goes by the nickname Mr. Scrooge.

What he didn't plan on was the real Santa, who happens to be a dab hand at fighting. After his reindeer are frightened off, he has no choice but to take out the robbers. Cue lots of inventive ways to kill dispensable villains, with the snow soon covered in blood.

Directed by Tommy Wirkola (Hansel & Gretal: Witch Hunters), the film rather tries to have its Christmas cake and eat at it, by concocting a sentimental story involving Gertrude's sweet-natured granddaughter, whose only wish is for her parents to get back together.

It's all very Disney-lite, and entirely at odds with a story featuring such bloody carnage.

Harbour gives a charismatic turn, acquitting himself well through the relentless action scenes (even if he's not quite Bruce Willis cool). D'Angelo is a hoot too; more of her being appalling would have been welcome.

Overall, Violent Night is knockabout fun, but if only the script wasn't so pleased with itself. Making knowing references to Die Hard, to the extent of casting Leguizamo, who featured in the sequel to that film, doesn't make this cinematic larceny any more palatable.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.