When considering marketing labels for filmmakers, it’s nice to see terms like “visionary” or “legendary” applied to those who actually deserve it. Between his Hong Kong cult classics and at least a couple of his American efforts, director John Woo certainly qualifies, but it’s a shame there haven’t been more notable efforts from him in over a decade. Now we have Silent Night, Woo’s return to American feature films, which promises a lot of gunplay, fist fights, and more to go along with a high-concept premise. But does this film signal a better tomorrow? While there are highlights, Silent Night often feels like it drifts off other successful attempts to revitalize the action film genre.
Joel Kinnaman stars as a tormented father in search of revenge after witnessing his son die by being caught in a gang’s crossfire on Christmas Eve. Additionally, this angry dad sustained a wound that cost him his voice. Taking a year to train himself to become vengeance incarnate, the father will eventually set out on a mission to stop the gangsters responsible for all his pain and suffering.
News was recently made from comments by Woo regarding the current trend of superhero films. For the record, anyone can like whatever type of film they want (this shouldn’t have to be said, but that’s the age we’re in), but it is a bit amusing that Woo has delivered his version of The Punisher. Obviously, elements are different, but a few tweaks could place Woo in the world of comic book movies. Does Silent Night match up to something like Lexi Alexander’s Grand Guignol-style take on the Marvel character that was 2008’s Punisher: War Zone? No, but there is a comfort zone for Woo in place that makes them comparable.
With all of that said, it’s a shame Silent Night isn’t better. Sure, it delivers on the action, and I will return to that. Still, for all the fun it eventually has with seeing Kinnaman’s character in action, the central conceit doesn’t ultimately pay off as well as it could. Given the predicament Kinnaman’s father character, Brian, is in, the film is also absent any dialogue. This is not unlike Hulu’s recent alien invasion flick, No One Will Save You, where we certainly hear the grunts and other sound effects emitted from characters, but the stylized approach means there are no words to be found.
While not unprecedented, it is an interesting way to approach an action film, which I’m sure is at least part of what attracted Woo to the project. It also feels like it would be an exciting acting challenge for Kinnaman and Cataline Sandino Moreno, who portrays his wife. Woo is not a stranger to melodramatic plotting that accompanies his supremely violent pictures, so there is weight to the drama unfolding between grieving parents. However, even for a film that isn’t too long (100 minutes without credits), it feels like there’s too much restraint for the sake of an eventual third-act extravaganza that isn’t as lengthy or richly satisfying as it could be.
Compared to the current highly acclaimed action franchise of today, John Wick, while stretches between action scenes occur (particularly in parts 1 and 2), the sense of the world being built around the characters was a significant part of keeping things interesting. On the other hand, Silent Night feels more in line with a direct-to-video feature that contains stellar action choreography and stunts. While I wouldn’t necessarily say this film is cheap-looking, there’s a sense of scale offered in Face/Off and The Killer, among his other features, that is not the case here.
There’s also the other thing – set in an unnamed city, we are essentially watching the story of an angry white man whose whole plan is to mow down all the dangerous Latino characters he can find. While the minimalism is deliberate thanks to the choice regarding dialogue and the more intimate notions Woo is striving for, it does mean we have little to go on when watching a film where exclusively brown people are the target of rage, with no more profound ideas in mind that dare to challenge our hero. Even a film like 1974’s Death Wish offers some moral complexity to what’s taking place, along with a lead character who evolves from being more than just a bystander (Bronson’s character was a conscientious objector to war-turned-gun harboring vigilante).
But okay, let’s put that aside and address what this film ultimately is: a B-movie that will heavily come down to how much Woo delivers on action scenes depicting all kinds of gun-related destruction. Well, Chad Stahelski (the John Wick films), Gareth Evans (The Raid films), Matthew Vaughn (the Kingsman films), Jesse V. Johnson (various Scott Adkins films), and Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible 5-8), among a few others, have all certainly put in their effort to take over the mantle of most accomplished and innovative modern action filmmakers. Does that leave room for Woo to do his thing? Of course it does. When the action gets going, there’s plenty of fun to be had, from brutal car chases to double-fisted gunfights to a long-take, shotgun-brandishing homage to Hard Boiled, that are all worthwhile.
Again, I think the film takes too long to get to its payoff finale. There’s not enough of what most presumably have come to see by the time the safeties are off, and the guns are blazing. With that said, however, Kinnaman, the cast, and the stunt team are all fulfilling what’s required of them. Woo hasn’t lost his touch in any sense when seeing how these stylized and very gritty action sequences play out as they do. With most of his signature touches intact, I can only hope this film is a springboard for him to play around more with his own legacy in future projects, American or otherwise.
As it stands, Silent Night doesn’t have much more to offer than an action film one may stumble across on various streaming services. The prestige accompanying Woo’s name at least means there’s a quality to the filmmaking that’s not always guaranteed for modern action movies. Still, with an ambitious premise and some factors that ultimately hurt the final result, I was hoping for something that more fully cleared the bar for success. Still, it’s better than a paycheck gig.