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Movie review: 'Violent Night' captures bloody Christmas spirit

1/5
Scrooge (John Leguizamo, R) interrogates Santa Claus (David Harbour) in "Violent Night." Photo courtesy of Universal Studios
Scrooge (John Leguizamo, R) interrogates Santa Claus (David Harbour) in "Violent Night." Photo courtesy of Universal Studios

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- Violent Night, in theaters Friday, goes one level beyond Bad Santa by making the actual Santa Claus disgruntled. But this Santa turns action hero and rediscovers the true meaning of Christmas.

Santa (David Harbour) complains about the greed of consumerist children as he gets beer in his beard at a bar. Later, that beard will get covered in caked blood when he fights bad guys.

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On Christmas Eve, a terrorist code-named Scrooge (John Leguizamo) takes over the Lightstone mansion. The bad guys hold CEO Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D'Angelo) and her family hostage to steal the money she's siphoned from a government contract.

Santa happens to be visiting to deliver presents to Gertrude's granddaughter Trudy (Leah Brady) when he encounters one of Scrooge's henchmen. Gunfire spooks the reindeer, so Santa has to stay and save the day.

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Violent Night captures a sincere Christmas spirit by taking an irreverent attitude toward both Christmas movies and action movies. Santa as an action hero is absurd, but he really is trying to save Christmas for Trudy.

Harbour delivers Christmas talk with the gravitas and intensity of an action hero. This Santa is still drunk, so he's a bit of a bumbling hero and has to improvise a scrappy fighting style against trained professionals.

Usually the team of bad guys underestimates one rogue hero. In Violent Night, their mistake is they stopped believing in Santa.

It's also hilarious when Scrooge gets annoyed by his henchmen, who start to believe they really are facing the real Santa.

Santa uses plenty of Christmas accouterments to inflict violence upon the bad guys. The film pays as much homage to Home Alone as it does Die Hard and an R-rated booby trap sequence is the most fun.

Violent Night doesn't quite maximize the location, though. Director Tommy Wirkola doesn't take the time to establish the rooms in the house that will pay off in action set pieces.

It's still fun when Santa encounters a terrorist in a new room and finds Christmasy weapons there. But, it becomes a string of set pieces rather than a work of clever construction and thus deprives the audience of half the fun.

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Santa is the new element, but you still have to design an action movie around the contained location. It is a shame they didn't give that aspect of the movie the attention classic action movies do.

As big as the Lightstone mansion is, it's not that vast. Passenger 57 found more nooks in a 747 to stage fights with bad guys.

Violent Night is not quite explosive and its biggest set piece doesn't equal the smallest ones in a John Wick or Nobody. The plot also drags between the second terrorist fight and the third action set piece.

As a Christmas movie, the Lightstone family is a deliciously despicable, disgruntled bunch. Trudy's estranged parents, Jason (Alex Hassell) and Linda (Alexis Louder), are the most sympathetic. But Jason is still an absent dad.

Alex's sister Alva (Edi Patterson), her boyfriend Morgan Steele (Cam Gigandet) and son Bert (Alexander Elliot) are blatant gold diggers. Scrooge henchman Krampus (Brendan Fletcher) takes as much delight as the audience in provoking their dysfunction under duress.

Violent Night is unlikely to replace the original Die Hard as the perennial Christmas action movie. But it's fun to watch for something new this year.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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