Director John Woo really needs no introduction to the world of action cinema. After beginning his career under the tutelage of the legendary Chang Cheh, Woo would strike out on his own and quickly rise up the ranks of other prominent Hong Kong directors. While his earliest films weren’t immense hits, he eventually landed on a winning formula alongside actor Chow Yun-Fat and the duo would go on to create some of the most genre-defining and redefining films ever.
When the mid-90s came along and many Hong Kong directors jumped ship to Hollywood, Woo was among the first to take the leap in the hope of introducing new techniques back in Hong Kong. Sadly, his penchant for beautifully crafted violence and deep stories of brotherhood were often mangled beyond repair by executives, leading to a string of shoddy films. Eventually, in 2004, he would turn to Chinese cinema and leave behind the glitz and glamor of Hollywood productions.
So here we are some 20 years after Woo’s last Hollywood production with Silent Night. Marketed as a film with next-to-no dialogue and a strong emphasis on action, does Woo’s return to the States deliver to fan expectations? Does the old master still have what it takes to create genre-defining material?
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Director: John Woo
Release Date: December 1, 2023 (US)
Let me get this right out of the way for anyone curious: Silent Night is not 100% dialogue-free. While the marketing has kind of fudged that tidbit a little, even I think it would be impossible to create an action film with a revenge story that featured zero dialogue. Now, leading star Joel Kinnaman (here playing Brian Godluck) doesn’t utter a single word, but there are a few bits and pieces where characters simply need to speak. In total over the course of an hour and 44 minutes, if we put aside radio broadcasts used for establishing shots, there are maybe four lines of spoken dialogue total.
As the trailer for Silent Night very quickly establishes, this film is about a man who loses his son to gang-related violence on Christmas Eve and can’t seem to get over the trauma of the situation. The film begins en media res with Brian chasing a red balloon in the hopes of tracking down the vehicles the gangsters were in. He eventually catches up to them and hides around a street corner to ambush the car as it passes. While he successfully cracks the window and even gets the car to crash into a forklift, Brian is shot in the throat by one of the gangsters and eventually loses his ability to speak.
It’s an incredibly effective way to start off the film and is even filled with some old-school John Woo flourishes. Brian runs in slow motion while we hear the jingle of his Christmas necklace while the credits roll. The red balloon, while maybe a little goofy, is also shot not unlike similar iconography from Hard-Boiled or The Killer. John Woo seems to be digging into his past to get some fan reactions.
Silent Night also establishes right out of the gate how excellent its editing is. Transitions between Brian running and over to the car-chase going on are handled seamlessly and there is some great cutting done to create a sensation of unbroken takes. The way that the camera moves from a close-up to a wide-shot right as you think someone will talk is a nice touch and the first real action moment is edited with a gritty kinetic energy that appropriately sets the stage for how violent this movie will be. Silent Night is maybe not Woo’s most graphic movie, but for a man approaching 78, this is a suitably dark and cynical film.
When Brian wakes up in the hospital, his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is there to deliver the bad news. He attempts to scream and can only muster huffed grunts. Kinnaman, to his credit, gives a pretty solid physical performance as he needs to rely on his face for any kind of emotional expression. There’s a real sense of trauma, depression, and angst that washes over Brian and it all comes out well. The editing, again, is a highlight as when the nurses and doctor come in to explain the prognosis, the camera cuts to an outside shot to mask their speech.
It’s really after this that I feel the film starts to unravel a little. When finally discharged, Brian and his wife Saya are riding home in an obviously silent car ride and the film attempts to inject some social commentary into the mix. The couple pass by graffiti that says “Fuck the Police” and the radio station they are listening to describes the astronomical climb of inflation and dire interest rates for home loans. It’s completely unnecessary exposition and stage setting for a revenge tale, especially since none of it ever comes up in the plot.
My first thought, as well, was that Brian would eventually go mad after the cops failed to help him avenge his son. While that is likely part of the reason for his turn to psychopathy, there isn’t a single scene that shows the cops washing their hands of the ordeal. After having the incident occur in December and spending a few months in rehab, Brian returns home and almost instantly becomes an alcoholic. He is despondent, angry, and almost completely separated from his wife. She looks on at him in the garage and can only shake her head in disapproval, which is maybe an intentional bit of black comedy.
Still, when Brian does take some action, he goes to the police station to meet with Officer Vassell (Kid Cudi) but winds up taking pictures of some wanted gang members on the wall. The face of the man who shot him is seared into Brian’s memory, so he obviously spots him and sets his sights on vengeance. It’s just that the script never creates a scenario where Brian even attempts to engage with Vassell, so his eventual transformation into The Punisher feels too abrupt.
That is truly my biggest issue with this film: Silent Night is a bit too short for its own good. From what I’ve read in recent John Woo interviews, he did intend for there to be an element of comedy in this movie. For subject matter that is not only well-trodden in film, but achingly dark and brutal, some black comedy makes sense. It’s just that I don’t feel Woo accurately sets up those moments and he especially doesn’t detail Brian’s descent into madness well.
What made me come to that realization was when Brian started his combat training in the garage. While I understand he isn’t meant to be portrayed as a righteous figure, the complete disregard Brian has for his wife and his laser focus on becoming combat-ready play out like some bizarre comedy act. At one point, the guy is brandishing a combat knife and striking an MMA training dummy while watching YouTube videos about how to disarm someone. Saya, again, looks on from the kitchen and nods her head as if to say, “Oh, that Brian.”
Ultimately, none of this would matter too much if the action held up, but that is maybe the most disappointing aspect here. Silent Night does have solid enough action, but there is definitely something awkward going on with the camera here. For as solid as the editing is with regard to transitions, musical cues, and lack of dialogue, the action is shot in a way not unlike modern Hollywood blockbusters. There are a lot of cuts, very ugly CG car crashes, and a strange lack of action for the entire second act. I think the best comparison is to Mission: Impossible 2 where John Woo was forced to include a bafflingly inept story and flesh out a non-threatening villain before really being able to let loose in the final act.
Not that gangsters need a motivation or a character arc, but the main “villain” of Silent Night doesn’t have the biggest role here. For that matter, Kid Cudi’s cop is absent from roughly 85% of the runtime, only returning in the final action scene. There’s a sense that Woo might have cut some of the plot to get the runtime down and I think that could be where some of my dissatisfaction is coming from. When Brian sends a letter to the police giving extremely detailed information about the gang members and writes, “What you should have done,” it feels like we missed some very important establishing information.
Having gotten all that negativity out of the way, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Silent Night on some level. The cold open is pretty outstanding and while I do wish the second act had more action, I can’t deny that once things kick off, the film becomes unrelenting in showing you how far Brian will go. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks to when Brian and his son were living happily together and it does a lot to get the audience behind the ridiculous slaughter he is about to unleash.
While the movie could have maybe opened with the actual death of his son, I do feel this properly establishes the psychosis that Brian has. He is deeply traumatized by the whole ordeal and there is a moment at the start of act two where he hugs a random kid in the Home Depot parking lot that just hit me. He is suffering and someone along the chain of support has failed him. It would have been nice to see that, but again, Kinnaman’s physical acting does sell this well.
The final action scene is also very much classic John Woo. In a callback to Hard-Boiled, the sequence is shot to look like a single-take and we get to see a ton of signature Woo idioms. The music, which I somehow haven’t even mentioned until now, is outstanding, and mixed with the intense imagery on display, this final shootout is well worth the price of admission.
When all is said and done, I have respect for Silent Night, but I’m also very conflicted about my feelings. In some ways, this movie is John Woo’s best Hollywood production to date. It’s also very much the best Punisher movie ever, as well as a really solid Max Payne adaptation. You’d think the lack of dialogue would drag things down, but that’s not really the problem here. The issue is that there is a lack of development for Brian that makes his crusade against crime feel too abrupt to wind up being satisfying.
Some people will probably knock the film for having such a reprehensible protagonist, but that doesn’t matter. Film doesn’t exist to show you only good things in this world. Much like The Punisher, Brian had something break within him and we’re going along for the ride to see how far he will fall. While Silent Night could have taken that further, at least the end result isn’t a complete mess of a movie.
I don’t know if Silent Night will spark a renaissance for John Woo in Hollywood, but at least it shows the man never lost his touch. As one critic at my screening put it so succinctly, “You would think that any old master would lose their edge as they age. Not John Woo.” If you were worried that this film would be sanitized in any way, shape, or form, fear not. John Woo still knows that violence is beautiful.