John Woo’s long-awaited return to North American filmmaking, Silent Night, brings his trademark action style back to the big screen after a 20-year hiatus. Shot in Mexico, this holiday-themed bloodbath features Joel Kinnaman as a mute lead character, Brian Godlock, and a supporting cast that utters barely ten lines throughout the film. Instead of dialogue, the movie communicates through anguished faces, physical expression, and text messages. Yet, the true languages of the film are its battering violence and sentimental manipulation, showcased in Woo’s masterful style.
Woo, known for his Cantonese masterpieces like “Hard Boiled,” “The Killer,” and “A Better Tomorrow,” as well as Hollywood hits like “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off,” brings a lyrical blend of slow motion and judicious edits, complemented by stunning stunts and symbolic birds, replacing his usual white doves with wild parrots. However, despite these stylistic flourishes, the film’s substance often feels disappointingly pedestrian. Silent Night is essentially a full-on 1980s revenge flick, reminiscent of “Die Hard” with a “Death Wish” twist, complete with numbingly long training sequences and a final showdown on Christmas Eve against a gang of expendable Latino criminals.
The premise is set when Brian’s young son, an innocent bystander, is killed in a shootout between rival gangsters on Christmas Eve. Brian, shot in the throat during the chaos, spends a year in traumatized silence. This silence permeates the film, with even Detective Vassel (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) of Las Palomas, a fictional Californian town, speaking sparingly. The crime in Las Palomas, mainly perpetrated by the gang leader Playa (Harold Torres) and his underlings, seems unstoppable.
Brian eventually resolves to seek revenge. He spends months in his garage, building his body and arsenal, preparing for a climactic assault on Playa’s headquarters. The film, written by Robert Archer Lynn, shows a stark contrast between Brian’s lack of experience and the seasoned criminals he faces. Despite the implausibility, Brian’s combat with these criminals, especially in hand-to-hand fights and car chases, is both kinetic and visually pleasing.
However, the film’s central conceit, a dialogue-free narrative, while intriguing, struggles under the weight of its own mayhem. Unlike David Fincher’s dialogue-averse protagonists in “The Killer,” Kinnaman’s silent portrayal in Silent Night is overshadowed by what general audiences might see as excessive violence. Woo’s desire to create aestheticized havoc contrasts sharply with the disciplined storytelling seen in Fincher’s work.
Silent Night does offer some memorable moments, but they don’t quite reach the ingenious audacity of scenes from Woo’s earlier works like the hospital shootout in “Hard Boiled.” Still, for fans of Woo’s style, the film’s gratuitous action sequences may be worth the wait. However, for those not inclined towards gore and melodrama, the cinematic spectacle of Silent Night might not be as appealing.
Woo’s return to the American cinema landscape in Silent Night is a blend of his signature action-packed, visually stunning style and a script that, while somewhat pedestrian, still offers moments of thrilling action and drama. It’s a film that, while not without its flaws, showcases Woo’s enduring talent for crafting visually compelling action scenes.
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