2003's Bad Santa was bona fide lightning in a bottle; a superior black comedy that managed to be roll-on-the-ground hilarious and even touching, not to mention it was the ideal antithesis of the usual Hollywood Christmas movie. It was a minor hit that developed a solid cult following, so now thirteen years later, we finally have a sequel, albeit one with a wholly different creative team at the helm. Bad Santa 2 may not be as quirky or as clever as its predecessor, but it still delivers in the laughs department in a big bad way. Frequently side-splitting, it's a sequel which thankfully retains the uncompromisingly dark spirit of its predecessor. Nevertheless, this is the type of motion picture which will divide viewers depending on their expectations, especially since the world has grown more politically-correct and averse to this brand of dark comedy.
Picking up over a decade after the original movie, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) still hasn't made anything of his life. A depressed, raging alcoholic, Willie is left only working menial jobs, none of which he can actually hang onto for very long, and his only friend is the staggeringly naïve, goofy Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). But Willie is thrown a lifeline when he's contacted by his old partner Marcus (Tony Cox) with a proposition. Marcus plans to rob a Chicago-based charity to the tune of $2 million, and needs Willie's deft safecracking touch to get the job done. The money is too tempting for Willie to pass up, though he becomes even more reluctant to go through with the job after being confronted with his unsavoury mother Sunny (Kathy Bates), who's also in on the heist. It's a precarious trio, as Willie finds it impossible to trust his associates, and he gets easily distracted by the charity's attractive co-founder, Diana (Christina Hendricks).
The ending of the original Bad Santa did not leave many logical directions for a sequel to take. Indeed, Thornton stated that finding the right story was one of the reasons why it took so long for Bad Santa 2 to come to fruition (talks started as early as 2010). The plot is admittedly on the contrived side, but it works well enough to reunite the characters and provide an excuse for a barrage of gags and one-liners. A number of recent comedy sequels have suffered from overly dense plotting, making the more simplistic narrative of Bad Santa 2 rather refreshing - and it's agreeably brisk at 90 minutes. The screenplay (credited to newcomers Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross) runs with the same shtick which characterised the first movie. Thus, some might say that it's more of the same, but what else would you want from Bad Santa 2? Although not especially witty, there are more hits than misses in the laughs department here. The movie goes for broke; it's offensive, crude and vulgar, and almost every line is peppered with profanity. Luckily, the movie doesn't take the easy way out with a copout ending; rather, the conclusion is reminiscent of the original movie in terms of tone. Don't expect to see everybody hugging each other or learning about the real meaning of Christmas.
Steering the ship this time is director Mark Waters (Mean Girls), who acquits himself with the material quite admirably, displaying a firm grasp of comedic timing and always maintaining a rapid-fire pace. Not to mention the whole enterprise is, of course, backed by an array of seasonal songs. Bad Santa 2 is an excessively dark movie, even mean-spirited at times, which will prove to be polarising, and not all of the tonal changes are negotiated successfully. Produced for an understandably scant $26 million, the movie unfortunately carries the look of a Netflix production or a direct-to-video flick, rather than a big screen feature film. Whereas the original Bad Santa was shot on 35mm film stock and carried some honest-to-goodness cinematic style, this follow-up was lensed digitally, and looks exceedingly basic from a visual standpoint. (Let's not forget that the Coen Brothers were executive producers on the first movie.) On top of this, there's a fair bit of obvious, egregious product placement throughout.
Despite looking a bit gaunt and frail, Thornton slips back into the role of Willie as if no time has passed. This is one of the characters that Thornton was born to play, and he's fearless in his delivery of the profane material, reaching to offend as many people as possible. Also returning is Cox who's equally enthusiastic, while Kelly is all grown up as Thurman Merman. But Bates is the movie's secret weapon, and she absolutely goes for broke playing such a foul-mouthed character. As Willie's mother, it's clear the apple didn't fall far from the tree - Bates is always seen drinking, smoking, swearing, and even exclaims, "I don't speak politically correct!" Also new to the cast is Hendricks, whose interactions with Thornton are a frequent source of amusement.
At the end of the day, I simply cannot deny that Bad Santa 2 worked for me, because it did. I laughed until I cried. It's a rapid-fire succession of vulgar one-liners, swearing, colourful insults, and trashy sex scenes, and it's laudable that the filmmakers had the guts to create something so flagrantly offensive. Plus, for all of its base sensibilities, there are some scenes here that attempt to tug at the heartstrings and continue Willie's redemptive arc established in the original movie. The fact that Bad Santa 2 is actually funny is a big deal, especially after the tedious Zoolander 2 and the studiously mediocre Anchorman 2. Everybody else can watch It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street on Christmas Eve - I'll be over here doing a Bad Santa double feature with a bottle of bourbon.