Violent Night: Father Christmas does Die Hard? What could possibly go wrong...

David Harbour stars in Violent Night - Universal Studios
David Harbour stars in Violent Night - Universal Studios

Violent Night has a wacky pitch going for it, then no idea how to keep your interest alive. Here goes: Santa Claus exists, and must save Christmas in his very own Die Hard.

Played with rumpled charisma by David Harbour, St Nick’s a sad, boozy wreck with his heart in the right place, but he also knows how to defend himself – with a sledgehammer, if necessary – against a bunch of criminal goons who are decidedly on his naughty list. This is one Kris Kringle who slays as much as he sleighs.

Thwack! There go a multitude of numbskulls. Thugs are impaled on icicles or fizzily electrocuted by tree ornaments. Die Hard gets gormlessly name-checked (someone’s due a Blu-ray from Santa’s magic sack). So is Home Alone for good measure, cuing up the scenes where a plucky tween called Trudy (Leah Brady) rigs up the attic in her grandma’s McMansion to make life hell for the home invaders. The difference is: they actually die, and there’s only so much badly lit slaughter a festive action-comedy can carry.

The squad of mercenaries, who have designs on $300m in this family’s vault, are led by John Leguizamo on depressed autopilot: the majestic sarcasm of Alan Rickman is a world away. Before these ruffians butt in, the whole family are already busy being vile to one other, and you wonder why this lot need saving, or what possible investment we have in watching Trudy’s divorcing parents (Alex Hassell, a wasted Alexis Louder) get back together. A martini-swilling Beverly D’Angelo does her best rasping Candice Bergen routine, as the immoral matriarch who hates everyone – and if stashing embezzled government funds in your safe isn’t a bad-egg felony, what is?

To get this flying as black comedy, we needed the sure melding of style and tone of, say, Gremlins, not the default Bad Santa-isms Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola trots out, needle-dropping corny jingles over grisly mano-a-mano scuffles and hoping for the best.

Harbour is good value on his own – quaffing 1937 brandy obliviously by the fire and growling in sozzled contentment. But he’s stumped when he has to spark off the stick-figure supporting cast, or sell us, with some truly cloying musical assistance, on the movie having a soul. You can gouge through as many carotids as you like with a sharpened candy cane, but if all this mayhem was meant as a deliciously nasty antidote to seasonal schmaltz, they bottled out. The action’s dingy and the sugar content is equally grim.

15 cert, 112 min. In cinemas from Friday December 2