It’s been 20 years since John Woo made a movie for an American studio, and the action genre has missed this Hong Kong master during his absence. Woo does indeed bring a number of his trademark stylistic moves to ‘Silent Night,’ and is aided by a ferocious performance from Joel Kinnaman. But both are saddled with a derivative revenge story and a gimmick that quickly becomes contrived, making Woo’s return to Hollywood a mixed bag at best.
Story and Direction
Before there was ‘John Wick’ or ‘The Matrix’ or ‘Fast and Furious,’ there was John Woo. The Hong Kong master of action cinema rose to international prominence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s through such masterpieces of visceral action and violence as ‘The Killer’ and ‘Bullet in the Head,’ which combined double-fisted shootouts, almost gravity-defying action, and operatic, weirdly sentimental epics of male relationships and loyalties strained to the breaking point and beyond.
Woo eventually found his way to Hollywood, but after a string of hits and misses that included two legitimately terrific films – ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Face/Off’ – he returned to make movies in Hong Kong following 2003’s disappointing ‘Paycheck.’ But now he’s come back to these shores for his first Hollywood film in two decades, the revenge thriller ‘Silent Night.’
Joel Kinnaman stars as Brian Godlock (yes, that’s the name) who, when we first meet him, is wearing a bloodied ugly Christmas sweater and chasing two cars on foot as the inhabitants of the cars exchange wild gunfire through the streets. This first scene immediately makes us realize how much we’ve missed Mr. Woo: it’s intense, strangely symbolic (there’s a red balloon floating above that Godlock keeps his eye on), and absolutely bonkers, ending with Godlock doing a bit of parkour and several gangbangers impaled through their windshield.
But not all of them: the leader, a truly menacing dude (Harold Torres) who we find out later is named Playa (yes, that’s the name), gets out of one of the cars, pulls out his gun, and puts one in Godlock’s throat, seemingly leaving him to bleed out. Over the course of the next few scenes, as Godlock recovers in the hospital from the brink of death, we find out the back story: Godlock and his wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) were playing in their front yard with their young son when the gang cars careened by, a stray bullet instantly ending the boy’s life.
From there, you can guess what happens, mainly because Robert Archer Lynn’s script is derivative, cliched, and predictable as hell: Godlock begins a single-minded quest to avenge his boy’s death, spending the next full year getting in top physical shape and training himself as an assassin as he zeroes in on Playa and his crew, even at the expense of his marriage and perhaps his sanity.
The twist here is that ‘Silent Night’ truly is silent: with the exception of a few whispered words from Saya, some police radio transmissions, and the odd radio broadcast, there is no dialogue in the film. Godlock has lost his voice, which somehow means that no one else can speak either. With film being, of course, a visual medium, the idea of a dialogue-free scenario is an intriguing one – if it makes sense in terms of the plot. It’s not very long before ‘Silent Night’ strains our belief and its own narrative with all sorts of contortions to avoid having people speak, down to Saya texting her husband from the kitchen as he sits brooding next door in the garage – in full sight of his wife.
Speaking of poor Saya, she’s lost a child too but Godlock and the film don’t acknowledge that, and Moreno is quickly shuffled off stage left halfway through the picture. We don’t know how Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi feels about his detective character, Dennis Vassel, also being reduced to a barely visible supporting player for most of the movie, only to emerge as a seemingly important character in the last 10 minutes. Like everyone else, he doesn’t speak, which makes his scenes even more irrelevant to the proceedings.
Most of the movie’s running time is devoted to Joel Kinnaman’s Godlock, and the good news is that the actor is fully committed to showing us his pain, grief, shock, and fury through his physicality. And he gets to indulge that physicality in several excellent action sequences, including that opening chase, a brutal fight between Kinnaman and a gang member he takes hostage in his kitchen, and another wild car chase featuring the striking image of first thick rivulets of blood, then a dead man’s face, slowly sliding down a windshield like melting crimson ice.
It’s what comes between all that that’s the problem. The revenge narrative is so well-worn that we can see right through it, and while we appreciate that it takes Godlock a year to get his act together, the training montage that eats up most of the second act goes on far too long. But Godlock himself is defined by just his rage and grief. There’s nothing else to him: we don’t even know how he supports himself, especially after Saya leaves him. John Woo’s best movies have almost always had two morally conflicted men reluctantly clashing with each other: here, in what is essentially your standard right-wing vigilante fantasy, there are no moral layers. There’s no sense of humor or the absurd either, something Woo also injected into his earlier films: ‘Silent Night’ takes itself dead seriously.
The gangbangers fare even worse, with the film playing up just about every racist stereotype about Mexicans that you can think of. It’s borderline indefensible. Equally lame is the film’s apocalyptic vision of a modern city (which is never named, although all the license plates are from Texas). Godlock is able to run a few hundred yards from his pleasant, tree-lined suburban block to a skid row on steroids, making us wonder why the hell he bought there in the first place.
Woo does execute some great action, with all the explosive mayhem and flying blood we’ve come to expect from him in the past, and Kinnaman is game for all of it. But we have to mention again how silly the lack of dialogue becomes — although a movie like this probably doesn’t miss it that much in the end – and how grave the whole thing is when it surely could have poked fun at itself.
We have to hand it to Joel Kinnaman. The Swedish-American actor has been toiling in Hollywood since 2011, going from the highs of starring as Rick Flag in both ‘Suicide Squad’ movies and leading the acclaimed ‘For All Mankind’ series to the lows of replicating Alex Murphy in the ill-fated ‘RoboCop’ remake.
Real stardom has eluded Kinnaman to date, and while ‘Silent Night’ probably won’t change that equation, we have to give the actor credit for a painfully intense performance. Brian Godlock isn’t exactly a multi-dimensional character, but Kinnaman goes all-in and convincingly portrays a man following a path of revenge and self-destruction fueled by deep grief – all without saying a single word.
That’s tough to do, and Kinnaman pulls it off even if he’s not the most charismatic actor around. He also credibly pulls off the action and gunplay, and while a deeper moral conflict and perhaps some humor would be welcome in his work here, that’s more the fault of the writer, and not this watchable actor.
With classic Hong Kong films like ‘A Better Tomorrow,’ ‘The Killer,’ and ‘Hard Boiled,’ John Woo achieved a balletic, intense, almost poetic approach to violence and gunplay that influenced directors around the world for decades since. His up-close-and-personal trademark imagery of two men shooting at each other with both hands in close quarters has been adopted since by the likes of franchises like the John Wick movies.
We’re glad to say it shows up here in ‘Silent Night,’ along with his other trademark, the slow-motion action scene, giving this movie some of Woo’s most distinctive touches. He also shoots shattering glass just about better than anyone, making it look like deadly, frozen, crystalline rain. ‘Silent Night’ has several standout sequences: its opening chase with Kinnaman on foot pursuing two gang vehicles, and that fight in a kitchen midway through the movie that is absolutely bone-crunching.
Some of the later action in the film is more generic in nature – how many times have we seen the hero fight his way up a long, winding staircase through endless hordes of henchmen – but Woo still shoots it in a more intense fashion than many of his stylistic successors. This may not be peak Woo, but it’s still a trip to see the master back in (no pun intended) action again.
As fans of John Woo’s early Hong Kong classics and several of his previous Hollywood pictures, like ‘Broken Arrow’ and the camp masterpiece ‘Face/Off,’ we were looking forward to seeing ‘Silent Night.’ We also appreciate the presence and commitment of Joel Kinnaman, a hard-working actor if not quite a movie star. But while we enjoyed some of Woo’s distinctive tricks and visceral approach to action and violence, the movie’s cliched storyline and the “no dialogue” novelty act wear out their welcome pretty quickly. The director and his star do the best they can, but both deserve better.
‘Silent Night’ receives 5 out of 10 stars.
What is the plot of ‘Silent Night’?
After losing both his son and his voice as a result of gang violence on Christmas Eve, a grief-stricken, fury-fueled father (Joel Kinnaman) prepares to take his revenge on the people who shattered his life.
Who is in the cast of ‘Silent Night’?
- Joel Kinnaman (‘The Suicide Squad‘) as Brian Godlock
- Scott Mescudi (‘X‘) as Detective Vassel
- Harold Torres (‘Memory‘) as Playa
- Catalina Sandino Moreno (‘From’) as Saya Godlock
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