When staring down the barrel of a months-long assault of nonstop consumerist cheer, sometimes being naughty is a lot more tempting than being nice. That's why 2003's "Bad Santa" was the shot of whiskey that the traditional Christmas movie needed — Billy Bob Thornton's drunken, foul-mouthed mall Santa Willie Soke spoke to the Grinch that lives inside us all. He's such a memorable character that he's been revived for another go, albeit 13 years later.
"Bad Santa 2" brings most of the onscreen gang back, but not the filmmakers — the sequel is directed by Mark Waters and penned by Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross. That change of guard behind the scenes could be the problem with the second iteration, which doubles down on the naughty, without enough nice to balance it out. The charm of "Bad Santa" was the cognitive dissonance between the unabashedly repugnant character of Willie, and the sweet, innocent kids who sat on his lap, most notably the one who wouldn't leave him alone, the Kid (Brett Kelly).
The Kid is the much-needed dose of sugar in the "Bad Santa" punch. Their relationship demonstrates that Willie does have a heart, which we need to believe in in order to tolerate his outrageous and wildly offensive antics. Their dynamic together makes for the funnier moments too. Kelly valiantly reprises his role as a 21-year-old Kid (given name: Thurman), who is exactly the same, but larger. He exhibits the same innocence and joy of another classic holiday movie character — Buddy the Elf, from "Elf." They're both adult naifs who retain their childlike wonder for the holiday season.
But instead of playing these two foils off each other, the filmmakers add another Bad Santa to the mix in the sequel: Willie's mother, Sunny Soke (Kathy Bates). More of a Mrs. Claus type styled as a butch biker, Sunny swills booze and jokes about giving birth to Willie as a teen in juvie. He did, indeed, get it from his mama.
Sunny has lured her son and his former elf nemesis, Marcus (Tony Cox), to Chicago to rip off a children's charity. Posing as Salvation Army-style street Santa volunteers, they infiltrate the organization run by Diane (Christina Hendricks) and Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen). For the sake of the heist, Willie is pressed to seduce both Diane and a female security guard, who inexplicably find the rude and crude drunk absolutely irresistible.
"Bad Santa 2" relies entirely too much on the salty stuff, offering an opportunity for audiences to titter at the firehose of vile gutter humor that leaves no one unsullied, and delves into some truly dark places. Thornton is nothing if not committed to the role, while Bates seems to be lost on her way between "American Horror Story" sets. Just as the shtick is growing tiresome, Thurman arrives in Chicago, but it's too little too late.
Thurman's goodness brings out the best in Willie, and the best in "Bad Santa 2." After wallowing around in the gross-out bad behavior of the Sokes, Thurman is the ray of sunshine that melts even the iciest Chicago snow; the sweetness that cuts through the acid. Kelly's breakout performance makes Thurman a classic Christmas movie character — if only there were more of his goodness and less of the badness.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service critic.
'Bad Santa 2'
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Rated: R, for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some graphic nudity.
Playing: In general release