Santa Claus: Action Hero? Well, sort of. It's the type of concept you don't often see, but one that you're surprised someone didn't think to exploit before.
In Violent Night, we have David Harbour as the man in the big red suit, a Father Christmas who is a little jaded and enjoys a drink in his off hours, but is still able to hit hard when it counts. Less coming to town, this Santa Claus is going to town when a group of mercenaries (led by John Leguizamo) hold a rich family at gun point to rob them of $300 million in their luxurious, isolated home's vault.
Claus is there to deliver a gift to the young girl who lives there, and is firmly on the nice list. The mercenaries? They're going to get a lump of coal – and Santa's all out of coal, so a grenade will have to do.
Tommy Wirkola, the director behind the zombie madness of Dead Snow and the fairytale-tweaking Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters is back for more fantasy-inflected action mayhem, this time with healthy helping of tinsel and fairy lights.
With the trailer now online, Empire talked to Wirkola about making the movie sweet without ever being saccharine and which stunts were brainstormed during production.
We first meet David Harbour's Santa at a bar, getting quietly drunk while the bartender worries about him driving home. "I steer", he says, "but the reindeer do most of the work". Harbour as the star was an easy yes for Wirkola and everyone else involved.
"His name came up and it was one of those things where me, the studio and the producers were like, 'Oh yes, the perfect choice. Yeah, we want him,'" says Wirkola. "And he was the first person we went out to. I sat with him a couple of days later and he was he loved the script and had ideas that were great."
"If there's one thing I can't wait for people to see, it's his performance of Santa Claus because it truly is something special," Wirkola adds. "Playing Santa is an intimidating thing. With so many movies about him, how do you make it different and unique and fresh?"
Yule love it!
While Die Hard is an obvious reference, we couldn't help but be reminded of The Night The Reindeer Died, one of the fake TV promos that kick off 1988's Bill Murray-starring Scrooged. While that features Lee Majors helping Santa, the idea of needing to battle mercenaries storming a residence resonates. As it happens, Wirkola and writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller had that in mind.
"We actually talked a lot about that, it feels like it could have been one of those commercials in the beginning of Scrooged!" Wirkola admits. "Yeah, we thought maybe for if we ever were lucky enough to make a sequel, maybe we should actually pay more tribute to that moment. It's actually one of my go to Christmas movies."
Expect plenty of cine-Christmas references in the movie, too. "There are a lot of movies that we pay tribute to, with Easter eggs and references." Eagle-eyed viewers should look out for definite nods to Home Alone and more, most of which aren't in the trailer.
No (Christmas) cookie cutter villain
John Leguizamo leads the villains here, looking to go home with hundreds of millions of dollars in his Christmas stocking. For Wirkola, Leguizamo was the one person he wanted to take on the role.
"John can be funny, can be charming, can be dangerous," he explains. "Oh, and his stand up is fantastic. I read his biography a few years back and I thought it was hilarious."
And he's not just a basic bad guy. "We really wanted somebody with more layers. It turns out he also has like a chip on his shoulder when it comes to Christmas itself."
Though a lot is played for laughs, there is plenty of action to be found in Violent Night, which Wirkola wanted to ensure lived up to its title. With 87North producing the movie, that meant the fights were naturally up to snuff, including moments that were spontaneously created on set with the Christmas decor. Or in one case in the trailer, Santa's magical sack.
"One of the things we discovered was that we have to use Christmas as much as we can in the action, and we have to use Santa Claus in this case as much as we can," says Wirkola. "For sure, the sack was something that came up early we knew we had to use in the fight, with the endless nature of it."
And there's a lot more than you see in the teaser, as Wirkola promises: "The trailer is only the tip of the iceberg!"
Star of David (Leitch)
David Leitch, who co-owns 87North and is a producer on the film, is an old friend of Wirkola's having run second unit and stunt co-ordination on Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters.
We were looking at stuff to do together, and he'd seen my previous film, The Trip, and liked it and said, ‘Tommy we have the script we want you to read.' And this felt like the thing we should do together," Wirkola enthuses. "It feels like I wrote the script because there are so many things I love in it."
And Leitch was more hands… well… fists-on than most producers.
"There was actually a moment where some of the stunt guys got Covid and he had to step in and play a role himself," laughs Wirkola (to be clear, that's not Leitch above... or is it?) "So it was all hands on deck. We had a lot of fun up there in Winnipeg!”
Winnipeg proved to be the ideal location for a Christmassy film, but it did offer challenges too, even for someone as winter-hardened as Wirkola.
"I do love watching movies set in snow and winter movies, because I feel like that harsh environment adds something. If you’re going to do a Christmas movie, you have to have snow," he says, before adding, "I’m from the north of Norway, but they managed to find a place that where I’m from. It was minus 25 degrees. There are no hills, so the wind just whips through. It pierces your pores. We were outside for several weeks in very extreme conditions. I don’t complain because I’m used to it, but that was cold! But it looks great, and those are real breath you see, we didn’t have to CGI that."
The matriarch of the wealthy family whose fortune attracts the baddies is played by Beverly D'Angelo, perhaps still best known for her role as Ellen Griswold in National Lampoon's Vacation, and crucially here, Christmas Vacation. She was very much on Wirkola's mind.
“That was one of the last roles we cast, and her name came up. Christmas Vacation is my favourite of the Vacation movies," admits the director. "And having seen her in my youth and having seen that movie to death, I knew Beverly would be a great idea. I Skyped with her and she was a very fun person who had so many ideas for the character."
Just don't expect the sweet-natured Ellen to show up here… "I have to say, people when they see the movie, her character is so far away from Mrs. Griswold," Wirkola says. "It’s more like a female version of Brian Cox in Succession, and she had a lot of fun playing that role."
In amongst all the fights and heist movie action, there is still room for heart. And that is provided by Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady), who believes in Santa more than he even believes in himself.
Wirkola was clear that the movie would be able to blend the sweetness and violence all in one wrapped package.
"That’s the heart of the movie, the relationship that Santa has with young Trudy," he says. " And it’s about him finding his belief in himself again through her, combined with the crazy stuff that surrounds them and the situation he’s in."
It's all part of the director's plan for the film. "I love to combine genres and try to make people laugh. So we certainly have a lot of that in this movie. Kudos also to Universal – there were moments where we sent re-writes where we were sure they were going to say, ‘this is too much.’ It was the opposite: ‘go for it, swing for the fences.’ I think if you’re going to do a film like this, you’ve got to have some edge and attitude and make people want to go see it. We really went for it, and I hope people will enjoy it!”
Violent Night arrives in cinemas on 2 December.