John Woo’s ‘Silent Night’ Shoots Its Way Through Christmas With Bloody Vengeance
John Woo may have stopped making films in Hollywood 20 years ago, but his presence never went away. In the action genre he’s one of the few true auteurs, having established a particular style of filmmaking countless other directors have been chasing after. After having tasted the Hollywood system for a while and going off to make films overseas, Woo returns with quite the experiment. “Silent Night” is not about the story, depth of its characters or any kind of piercing social commentary. It’s really all about technique. As the title makes clear, this is another in the latest trend of delivering “holiday movies” that are action fests wearing Santa hats. Not a single aspect of the plot is original. What stands out is Woo’s sheer, manic joy in staging action like ballet, going so as to cut out any dialogue for the characters. They really don’t need it.
Superficially, it’s a classic revenge ride involving a man hilariously named Brian Godluck (Joel Kinnaman). What isn’t hilarious is that Brian is thirsting to get even with local gangsters who killed his child in a terrible crossfire on Christmas Eve. Godluck was left without a voice after a bullet went through his throat. As wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) grieves, Brian has little time for tears. He marks his calendar and prepares to get revenge on the one year anniversary of the tragedy. That’s enough time for him to get ripped, amass weapons, rebuild his car into a bulletproof war on wheels, do some serious target practice and stalk his targets. His main prey is ruthless gang leader Playa (Harold Torres). A detective named Vassell (Kid Cudi) starts to sense something big is going down and might just get caught in the war Brian is about to unleash in the streets.
Woo was the most famous director to emerge out of the Hong Kong action movie scene in the 1980s, quickly becoming a global name with titles like “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled.” Those films remain highly influential for the way Woo shot action in stunning slow motion sequences mixed with intense melodrama. He brought that style to America, most famously in “Face/Off” and “Mission: Impossible 2,” both stylishly gripping entertainments. But after a few flops, the last being 2003’s “Paycheck,” Woo vanished from the U.S. scene. He was missed. There’s always something innovative in a Woo film. “Face/Off” had John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play versions of each other, while “M:I2” combined the franchise’s classic spy thriller elements with Woo’s brand of Hong Kong spectacle. “Silent Night” figures that an action movie is about the action, so why drag down the plot with needless monologues at the service of a recycled plot machine?
It would be very intriguing to read the screenplay by Robert Archer Lynn, whose crafting probably required harder effort than your average script where a monologue can easily explain away some plot element. “Silent Night” in a sense is pure cinema because our comprehension of the story depends entirely on the editing, presentation and movement of what’s on screen. It’s very much a silent movie. Silent but never static, every Woo flourish is thrown in here. Though we miss the grain of the early films shot on film, with digital Woo is free to conjure eye-popping action sequences with a smaller budget than your average Marvel romp. “Silent Night” opens right away with a wild chase culminating in someone crashing their car into a fire hydrant and flipping into the air, spewing a rain of glass. Brian takes a bullet to the throat and awakens in a hospital, with Saya waiting in a hallway with one of those freeze frame close-ups Woo constantly used back in the ‘90s. Flashbacks to the death of Brian and Saya’s child have reminders of the moving opening of “Face/Off.” No words are needed to convey that this couple is in pain over their losses. Tears and embraces are enough.
We also don’t need dialogue when Brian goes through the typical revenge hero motions. Woo is having fun on multiple levels, refreshing clichés while winking at how the times have changed. Brian doesn’t need someone to train him on how to use a knife. He simply watches a YouTube video. Who will ask questions when you’re a normal guy at a gun range? And, of course, all it takes is a basic workout routine involving many pull ups to develop the physique necessary to kill your enemies. What matters is that the editing has its own fluid elegance. The music by Marco Beltrami says what isn’t spoken and the cinematography by Sharone Meir is pure slickness. Joel Kinnaman delivers his most notable performance due to the sheer physicality. He has to do revenge, sorrow and tension with nothing but expressions. Yet, we buy it. He can’t hide behind dialogue.
In the action genre Woo has famously been an influence on franchises like “The Matrix” and “John Wick.” They’ve all borrowed from the way his characters dress and strut to the slowed down shots that capture bullets flying like birds across the screen. Fittingly, the third act of the movie is where Woo goes wild with brutal hand to hand combat and Brian eventually plowing through Playa’s thugs with an endless rain of gunfire. But notice how the camera glides, flies and delivers impressive tracking shots. The action is always clear in its movements and geography. Sure it gets bloody, but Woo is playing with violence the way a painter splashes a canvas. Because he’s still a skilled storyteller, Woo ends the film on a rather emotive note. There’s some genuine pathos there despite all the silliness and generic villains, who walk around cackling and living in houses that look taken out of a rap video. Oh, and you can’t forget the Christmas lights. “Silent Night” is a speechless entertainment that lets us watch a master of its form come back to play.
“Silent Night” releases Dec. 1 in theaters nationwide.