Way back in November 2006, director Terry Zwigoff and writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa unleashed Bad Santa on the world, providing us with the perfect antidote to the crass-commercialism and forced cheer that can mar the festive season.
Flash forward 13 years and a new creative team has cooked up Bad Santa 2 with the hope of recapturing the same blend of pitch black comedy and surprisingly heartfelt emotion that made the first outing such a success.
Unfortunately, the end result comes across a bit like warmed-up Christmas leftovers: still enjoyable, but far less satisfying than when it was served up fresh the first time around.
Bad Santa 2 reintroduces us to former department store Santa/safe cracker Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), whose life has somehow descended into an even deeper morass of alcoholism, debt and general depravity than when we first met him.
The only ray of light in his otherwise bleak existence is Thurman (Brett Kelly), the now-grown up, borderline-mentally impaired kid who remains devoted to Willie despite the miserable old boozer’s best efforts to drive him away.
On the verge of suicide, Willie’s fortunes suddenly take a turn for the better, when former partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox) – who you’ll remember is a dwarf – recruits him to take part in a $2 million score ripping off a children’s charity run by good-hearted bombshell Diane (Christina Hendricks).
The catch? Willie will have to work alongside his estranged mother Sunny (Kathy Bates) – an even fouler version of himself who has cheated him before, leaving him unable to trust anyone involved in the heist…
As with the first film, most of what makes Bad Santa 2 work is the result of its outstanding cast.
Thornton is still perfectly cast as Willie, and his ability to straddle the line between out-and-out drunken deviant and someone with an INCREDIBLY faint spark of human decency in him is as impressive now as it was over a decade ago.
Cox is similarly on point again as Marcus, and his feisty delivery helps makes the fun made at the expense of his short stature far more palatable than it otherwise would be.
Rounding out the gang, Bates is predictably reliable as Sunny, keeping us guessing throughout the film just where her loyalties truly lie and scoring her fair share of chuckles along the way.
Hendricks, meanwhile, does a lot with Diane, a fairly underwritten, stock character – good girl with a sordid past and dirty inclinations – and to be honest, the only real weak link of the main players is Kelly as Thurman.
Granted, he’s not given an easy part to play, and he’s burdened with some fairly clunky dialogue at times, but it’s still hard to get around the fact that he’s probably not an actor of the same calibre as the rest of the cast.
But then Bad Santa 2 isn’t exactly the same calibre of movie as its predecessor, either.
It’s not that it’s a bad film, per se; it’s just that Bad Santa already did all the same things things, said all the same stuff – only better.
The screenplay by new writers Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross is less insightful, their witty barbs less sharp.
You’ll definitely laugh out loud more than once over the course of Bad Santa 2’s 92 minute runtime – a brutal encounter between Willie and a fellow Santa will have you wheezing with glee – but there’s no denying that in place of the sophisticated filth of the original, Rosenthal and Cross have leaned more heavily on crude vulgarity and pure shock factor.
Similarly, where Zwigoff’s direction gave his initial effort a hard, real-world edge that fit the tone of the piece, incoming director Mark Waters has opted for a more cartoonish air, which feels somewhat misjudged.
On the plus side, Bad Santa 2 has as much of a (badly bruised) heart as Zwigoff’s film, but the lack of nuance in both the script and direction tend to make this aspect feel like more of an afterthought.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
That’s a real shame, as Bad Santa 2 really does have something special – if not so original – to say about human nature in general, and Christmas in particular.
It’s a story about when you feel like you’re an absolute piece of living in crap (or in Willie’s case, pretty much know you are), and you’ve given up on the idea of doing anything positive with your life, only for love – not to mention festive spirit – to motivate you to step up and do something selfless and kind.
For Willie, it’s taking a moment to watch Thurman’s solo at the children’s concert, and the realisation that he will be hurting the family he has become a part of if he goes through with the job and robs the charity.
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens said that we should keep Christmas in our hearts all year long, but for someone like Willie, it’s probably enough to do it just once a year.
He might be an abusive, dishonest, selfish, violent Grinch for almost the full 365 days on the calendar, but what separates him from true villains like Sunny and Marcus is that he can change.
It might not be for long, but for a few shining moments every now and again, Willie can actually care for the few people who love him, and it’s this essential truth that makes Bad Santa 2 every bit the dark horse feel-good Christmas affair as the first film.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
The first Bad Santa set a high bar for alternative Christmas fare, so perhaps it was inevitable that any sequel would struggle to reach the same heights.
That said, thanks mostly to a strong cast led by Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa 2 remains a solid effort, one that those looking for something a little less saccharine from their Yuletide cinema will happily lap up.
That’s it for this review – now it’s your to have your say!