Violent Night (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Just about hits the balls-eye (sorry, bulls-eye) but falls short through miscalculating its target audience. A little bit of rejigging in the inevitable sequel could see this shine. Roughly, Die Hard meets Home Alone. That’s putting it a bit crudely, but swap skyscraper for billionaire’s mansion and a little boy for little girl and you get the drift.

What gets this very much over the line are the little bits of magic, as appealing as they come, and Santa has a get-out clause (literally, and no pun intended) because in dire emergency he can vanish up any nearby chimney and though he’s aware there’s magic involved he has no idea how it’s done. Plus he has a scroll to hand, a cribsheet that separates the good from the bad.

Bad moon rising? Less of the ho-ho-ho and more of the bah humbug and it just goes to show that a man and his hammer should never be parted.

Home Alone defensive techniques have escalated since Macauley Culkin’s day, and though “You Filthy Animal” is referenced young Trudi (Leah Brady) has a mouthful of real cuss-words, plus nails her weapon of choice. It’s cleverly done how she links up with the inebriated self-pitying Santa (David Harbour) and there’s a grimace-inducing finale – the true spirit of Xmas and all – that sails close to the wind for a hardnosed thriller but par for the course for a soppy Xmas saga.

So that’s really the only problem. The picture can’t quite make up its mind in which direction it’s headed. Hard-ass with a soft center is clearly the aim, but there’s just too much gore to pull that off. Sure, some of the killings are comic, but they’re helluva bloody too. And there’s a weird backstory – even weirder than John Wick’s assassin commandments that shalt not be broken – involving (I think) something to do with Vikings and a guy who can’t die, not exactly a zombie because he’d already be dead, and thankfully he doesn’t need blood to slake his thirst, but still he’s been around for a millennium, though, truth be told, the actual date Father Christmas first appeared is not exactly set in stone.

On the other plus side, the family whose home is being invaded by villainous “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) – color and city pseudonyms all taken by previous fictional gangsters – are just plain venal, toadying up to ruthless matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) whose vault bulges with gazillions of illicit dollars. Her potential heirs, Jason (Alex Hassell) and Alva (Edi Patterson), are a cringe-worthy pair. While Jason at least is attempting to sever connections to malicious mama, Alva has named her son Bertrude in a bid to curry favour.  And when push comes to shove, most of that family will sacrifice every last one of their nearest and dearest.

So, basic story, family in the sh*t, drunken Santa and little girl to the rescue.

There’s some clever twists. Jason isn’t quite the dolt you think, Alva’s macho boyfriend-cum-actor turns out to have muscular chops while Jason’s partner Linda (Alexis Louder) is quite the vengeful one.  

Endearing to the last, Trudi channels her inner Macauley Culkin with a side-serving of her grandmother’s ruthlessness and, taking Home Alone as her template, effectively slices and dices her opponents. And my guess is that’s the vibe the producers were chasing – fun slaughter. They don’t miss by miles, but they do miss. And an audience that would have happily lapped up the outrageously vicious Trudi will probably not relish the rest of the gory goings-on while a John Wick audience will feel hard-done-by that even a sliver of cuteness has penetrated their hardcore world.

And it’s that rarity, an action comedy with a good few belly laffs rather than the usual situation where you see what they’re trying to do but don’t actually burst out laughing.

David Harbour (Black Widow, 2021) isn’t left to carry the picture but his cynical manner, catchphrases, and surprisingly gentle approach certainly bring it home. Leah Brady, graduate of the Umbrella Academy (2022), is New Wave Cute, soft with a hard center. Beverly D’Angelo (National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983) can;t believe her luck at sinking her teeth into such a vicious character.

Director Tommy Wirkola (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, 2013) just about gets it right, especially unusual to be able to marry action and comedy, working from a screenplay by Pat Casey and Josh Miller who co-wrote Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) which was also a matter of getting the balance right.

Great fun all round. Not sure what the title would be for a sequel but look forward to it.

Black Widow (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Like Skyfall, that rarity, an action film with a solid emotional core. Take away the action and you would still have an absorbing story of a loss, family tension, bickering siblings and an ego-driven pompous father. The action brings family together, initially the two girls, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) rescuing papa Alexei (David Horsburgh) from a Russian maximum-security prison then with the addition of brainy mum Melina (Rachel Weisz) tackling criminal mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone) in an exceptionally clever secret location.

If you’ve come looking for simple action, this is the wrong movie for you. Family complication, on a par perhaps with the criminal clan of The Godfather and imbued with the darker hues of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, adds far more depth than normal for a superhero picture. And even for Dreykov, the issue is family. He is the repairer-in-chief, on the one hand putting back together as well as he can his own familial loss, and on the other giving a home for countless orphans worldwide, albeit to suit his own plans.

Natasha has run the gamut of raw emotion. Orphaned twice, forcibly ejected from the one place she called home, i.e. The Avengers family, her feelings about being reunited with  adoptive Romanoff parents are noticeably negative.  Yelena is more willing to embrace the errant parents. Never mind that this is the one superhero picture in The Avengers catalogue where the superhero, as fit and agile as Natasha is, has no demonstrable superhero powers. And even those powers are mocked by Yelena who makes fun of the pose we have so often seen Natasha adopt. Nearly stealing the show is the self-pitying Alexei, the over-ripe overweight over-emotional father who would always be embarrassing you, inflated with his own self-importance, as bereft now as his daughters, having been stripped of his own superhero status as the Red Guardian. Whenever any of his family are in danger you can be sure his ego will get in the way.

The story is simple enough. By accident, Yelena, a member of the Dreykov army of female orphans, accidentally discovers she is enslaved, teams up, but only after a knock-down scrap Jason Bourne would have been proud of, with on-the-run Natasha, and eventually her parents. The action is terrific, especially the jailbreak, which has time to steal the central riff from Force Majeure (2014) just to ramp up the tension. And there are plenty surprises along the way, especially apt reward for Natasha’s ruthlessness as a do-gooder.

This is an entire family up for redemption, forced to confront their pasts, and for once it is not action that provides the solution. In some respects it is the family that clings together that stays together. The Avengers aspect is mostly redundant here, so what’s left is a more solid action-fueled thriller with superb characters, each, including villain, with their own emotional story arc. And it’s not always dark either, the family scenario studded with comedy nuggets.   

Visually stunning, as you might expect, this is a welcome big-budget showcase for Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, 2017) who brings emotional intelligence to bear on a genre in which that is often in short supply. Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) was the wordsmith.

Johansson (Marriage Story, 2019) has rarely been better and it says a lot for the performance of Florence Pugh (Little Women, 2019) that in their scenes together she is rarely overshadowed. Hopefully, this is the breakout picture for David Harbour (No Sudden Move, 2021), and maybe even the MCU team might recognize the comedic opportunities in a stand-alone based on his character, so effortlessly has it been constructed. And it’s a welcome return for Rachel Weisz, absent from the big screen since The Favourite (2018).  William Hurt (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) makes an expected appearance and Olga Kurylenko (The Courier, 2019) a surprise one and The Handmaid’s Tale’s O-T Fagbenie provides an interesting cameo.

This is definitely not going to work as well on the small-screen so if you’ve got the chance to see it in the cinema – where I saw it on my weekly Monday night outing – grab it while you can.

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