Sometimes the holiday season can be just a little too sweet. It's why stories like "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" endure, or movies like "Bad Santa" find success — not everyone wants to gulp down saccharine sentiments at Christmastime.
Enter "Violent Night," in which David Harbour plays a murderous Santa Claus. Borrowing heavily from "Die Hard" and "Home Alone," throwing in some extra bloody kills and utilizing every Christmas-y pun, it's a holiday actioner for the gore-hounds. This is a star vehicle, or rather, a sleigh, built specifically for Harbour, who gamely commits to the performance, and is probably the only actor currently working in Hollywood who could pull this off.
The result is amusing enough, but it's as cinematically substantive as a sugar cookie.
Directed by Tommy Wirkola, who has experience shooting wintry wonderland horror ("Dead Snow"), and written by Bloomington natives Josh Miller and Patrick Casey, "Violent Night" is cobbled together from the recognizable parts of other Christmas classics. References and riffing are enjoyable, but in "Violent Night" they feel like we can see the mechanics of the gears cranking, sapping the bonkers fun that might have been had here.
During the first act setup, we get to know our boozy Santa, who is filled with holiday ennui and cynical about the capitalist consumption of Christmas. After a stop at a pub in Brighton, England, he ends up stranded at the wealthy Connecticut compound of the Lightstone family, a monstrous bunch of oil billionaires, with one sweet, Santa-loving kid, Trudy (Leah Brady).
A group of holiday code-named criminals led by Scrooge (John Leguizamo) infiltrate the Lightstone Christmas Eve festivities and proceed to hold them all hostage with the intent of making off with the $300 million in the basement, until Santa and Trudy go all John McClane and Kevin McCallister on them.
There are a few inspired moments, punchy jokes and Wirkola keeps the camera moving, but the scenes keep cutting away from the action, and the pace drags. You keep waiting for things to get a little more wacky and weird, but there's a wild-card element that's missing from this killer Santa movie, which just feels very by the numbers.
Ironically enough for a story about Santa growing weary of greed, "Violent Night" wants to have it all — the blood, the foul-mouthed humor and the happy holiday ending about the true meaning of Christmas. Without committing to a tone, it all cancels each other out in the end.
At least "Bad Santa" had the nerve to go all the way naughty. "Violent Night" tries to be both naughty and nice, and as it turns out, when it comes to those lists, it's either one or the other.
** out of 4
Rated: R for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references.
Where: In theaters Friday.