Legendary action director John Woo is a household name among Hong Kong cinema buffs and Hollywood blockbuster fans alike. Known for classics like Hard Boiled, Face/Off, and Mission Impossible 2, Woo elevated gonzo shootouts and balletic violence into high art. His recent comments calling out Marvel and other cookie-cutter franchises seemed timely, coming from an OG who helped shape modern action cinema.
But the irony is that Woo’s new revenge flick Silent Night plays like a cheap direct-to-DVD knock-off of his signature style. This supposed comeback vehicle for the veteran filmmaker has a cool premise about a mute vigilante dad hunting his son’s killers. Leading man Joel Kinnaman brings the physicality. Yet none of Woo’s visual wit and panache made the transition Stateside. Jarring edits and flat lighting waste the few decent action beats. And a racist core leaves a bad taste.
For diehard Woo fans, Silent Night lands like a lump of coal under the Christmas tree. After a 19-year Hollywood absence, the director’s long-awaited return ends up being silent in all the wrong ways.
A Silent Night of Bloody Vengeance
Silent Night opens with Brian Godlock (Joel Kinnaman) decked out in a goofy Christmas sweater, chasing down the gangbangers responsible for his young son’s death. When Brian finally catches up, tattooed villain Playa (Harold Torres) rewards his efforts with a shotgun blast to the throat. Just like that, our grieving protagonist loses his voicebox.
In the aftermath, Brian watches helplessly as his marriage falls apart and his wife walks out. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, Brian starts preparing for a rampage against his son’s killers. Training montages show him getting ripped at the gym, learning to handle weapons, and stealing intel from the cops. This silent warrior is ready to make some noise.
When Brian takes out the first name on his kill list, he hogties the thug and leaves him on the doorstep of Det. Vassel (rapper Kid Cudi) like a deadly Secret Santa delivery. The rest of the gang is next on the naughty list. On Christmas Eve, Brian lays siege to Playa’s lair with some serious firepower.
What follows is a symphony of violence orchestrated by maestro John Woo. Brian’s Ford Mustang leaves smoking rubber and bullet-riddled bodies in its wake. Things kick into high gear for a stairwell shootout straight out of a John Wick film. The silence makes every neck snap and headshot pop even more. A kitchen knife brawl would make Gordon Ramsay wince. And Playa versus Brian gets ugly, no holds barred.
By the climax, Silent Night leaves almost as many bodies as deck Halls. Brian’s vow of silence speaks louder than words ever could.
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A Vengeful Silence with Signature Woo Flair
On the surface, Silent Night utilizes familiar themes and beats from vigilante revenge flicks. A loving family man turns ruthless after trauma transforms him into a single-minded angel of death. We’ve seen this story play out in everything from Death Wish to Taken (even Peppermint and Nobody for the girls).
What sets Silent Night apart is John Woo’s signature style. Known for exaggerating violence into poetic spectacle, Woo turns up his stylistic flourishes here. The premise of a mute protagonist doubles down on the director’s penchant for visual storytelling over chitchat. Woo flexes his skills for kinetic action built around car chases, shootouts, and everything in between.
Slow motion starts early and often – from the opening chase to bullets tearing through flesh. Marco Beltrami’s urgent score complements the operatic carnage. Woo conducts it all with aplomb, showing today’s action hacks how it’s done. One bravura sequence finds Brian drifting his Mustang through traffic like Ken Block while raining lead on the baddies. Say what you will about the thin story, but Woo came to play.
Things downshift during emotional beats too. Gorgeous transitions shuttle us between Brian’s past family happiness and post-trauma misery. Lighting shifts from golden warmth to grimy darkness in an instant, contrasting dreams of domestic bliss with the current nightmare. It’s heavy handed schmaltz, no doubt, but heads again Woo uses style to say more with images than words.
While the action falls short of Hard Boiled heights, Woo reconnects to his Hong Kong roots more than recent American efforts. Silent Night speaks the international language of mayhem loud and clear.
Uneven Direction and Visuals Undermine Standout Scenes
As the maestro behind some of action cinema’s most iconic images, John Woo sets sky-high stylistic expectations with any new release. And Silent Night shows traces of the director’s prowess across a handful of standout moments. The opening holiday chase and subsequent hospital wake-up call feature signature kinetic energy. Quick zooms and smooth tracking shots mesh with slo-mo for maximum impact.
Woo also flexes creative chops during those surreal transitions drifting between Brian’s past and present mindscapes. The lighting shifts are obvious but effective, bathing happy family memories in a warm nostalgic glow compared to the harsh fluorescence of Brian’s gloomy reality. Sure, it’s heavy handed, but props to Woo for visual inventiveness.
Elsewhere behind the camera, however, Silent Night disappoints more than it delights. After that explosive intro, the action loses steam and turns workmanlike rather than inspired. The stairwell shootout feels like a basic digital imitation of chic hits like Atomic Blonde with none of the visceral immediacy. Quick cuts undermine most gunfights, avoiding graphic violence over Woo’s trademark poetic ultraviolence. And when the camera finally holds steady, the long takes showcase ho-hum fight choreography without the usual flair.
What happened to Woo’s operatic scale? Even with a limited budget, too many scenes look flat, gloomy, and visually monotonous. The visuals lack texture and a rich sense of tangible space, feeling closer to a gritty DTV production than a John Woo feature. It’s never outright ugly, but rarely gorgeous. Silent Night forgoes beauty for banality far too often, which undersells itssparse yet overblown emotions. After a 19-year absence, it seems Woo misplaced some directorial mojo during his Hollywood hiatus.
Kinnaman’s Commanding Turn Anchors an Otherwise Silent Film
As the vigilante ass-kicker at the heart of Silent Night, Joel Kinnaman shoulders the bulk of its dramatic heavylifting. Despite minimal dialogue, the Swedish actor speaks volumes through imposing physicality and brooding expressions alone. This is a tricky task for any performer, but Kinnaman fills the lead role’s silent intensity with aplomb.
Whether playing defiant toward the cops or consoling his grieving wife, Kinnaman projects a commanding presence fit for leading man status. His hulking frame suits Brian’s ruthless quest for vengeance, while emotional close-ups expose inner vulnerability behind the scowl. Training montages let Kinnaman showcase impressive physicality as well – rippling new muscles as Brian prepares for war.
Once the action explodes, Kinnaman continues conviction as a one-man army mowing down hordes of gangsters. His movements during fight scenes prove graceful yet full of force. And while the film trades Woo’s usual verbose villains for quieter opponents, Kinnaman fills the silence with palpable fury. His expressive eyes speak volumes, particularly during the brutal mano a mano showdown versus his son’s killer Playa.
Of course, Kinnaman can only act within the constraints of the material. For all his talents, there’s a limit to the complexity any performer can convey when their character barely utters a word the entire runtime. We get mere glimpses of Brian’s inner turmoil rather than full Shakespearean dimensions. Still, Kinnaman wrings every last drop from his taciturn role – and then some. Without this commanding lead performance at its core, Silent Night would feel even more hollow.
A Bittersweet Comeback for John Woo
For John Woo diehards, the long-awaited Silent Night plays like a bittersweet reunion with an old flame. The film marks his first American effort in nearly 20 years following a string of Chinese productions overseas. As expected, Woo brings vigorous action chops and moments of visual poetry in fits and starts. Lead actor Joel Kinnaman also impresses with a commanding physical turn that largely transcends the script’s thin characterizations.
But questionable creative choices make Silent Night feel more like a lukewarm direct-to-video release than a hotly anticipated theatrical comeback for an alleged master. Uneven direction, dull visuals, and half-baked set pieces undermine Woo’s finer instincts more often than not. And overt racism leaves a rancid aftertaste.
While a passable vigilante revenge flick for undemanding genre fans, Silent Night suggests John Woo lost some directorial mojo during his Hollywood hiatus. Perhaps he struggled adapting his signature style to modest budgets or simply lost touch with American aesthetics. Whatever the reasons, Woo’s still-evident talents deserve better material.
Here’s hoping Silent Night performs well enough to grant this legend another shot on home turf. But for now, his bittersweet return echoes like that lonely jingle bell around Brian’s neck: reminding us how badly Woo’s past glory jangles against his present silence.
Silent Night boasts all the basic ingredients of a pulpy John Woo revenge flick, including jokey holiday flavor. But lackluster execution renders it a watered-down version of the director’s best work. Slim thematic ambitions make the no-dialogue gimmick feel largely pointless beyond a few solid action beats elevated by an intense Joel Kinnaman performance. Uneven aesthetics and racially charged violence further mar Woo’s bittersweet Hollywood return. Diehard fans will find minor nostalgic pleasures but should temper expectations.
- Joel Kinnaman delivers an intense, physically commanding performance as the vengeance-seeking vigilante protagonist
- Creative visual transitions between character's past and present are emotionally effective
- Marco Beltrami's urgent score complements the action well
- Some standout action set pieces (stairwell shootout, car chase sequences, etc.) showcase Woo's kinetic style
- Uneven direction and dull cinematography fail to meet expectations
- Themes of revenge and violence come across as derivative of other films
- No-dialogue gimmick starts to feel limiting over time
- Uneven pacing drags in first half
- Action scenes are visually uninspired compared to Woo's past work
- Ending confrontation lacks proper buildup