Woo’s ‘Silent Night’ Will Delight Director’s Hardcore Fans

Action legend returns with dialog-free film brimming with his signature touches

John Woo’s “Silent Night” is his first American movie in 20 years, after the so-so “Paycheck” (2003) and the unfortunate 2018 Chinese thriller “Manhunt,” neither of which were worthy curtain calls for one of the greatest living action movie directors.

Woo’s worldwide success led to some notable hit and misses; for every “Red Cliff” (2008), there was a “Windtalkers” (2002) that undermined his momentum, not that Woo had anything to prove, not really.

Most would consider Woo’s “The Killer” (1989) to be his all-time hall of famer, though I’m happy to argue that his “Hard-Boiled” (1992), the greatest action movie I’ve ever seen, is much better. Long before he made stateside smashes “Hard Target” (1993), “Face/Off” (1997) and “Mission: Impossible II” (2000), his three finest American movies, Woo was already an established Hong Kong legend.

Interview: Director JOHN WOO talks new film SILENT NIGHT

Woo made a wide variety of films, including a musical (!) and even an early Jackie Chan film called “The Hand of Death” (1976), but his action movies were astonishing. Note those elegant uses of slow motion, symbolism (ah yes, those doves!), mythic depictions of good vs. evil, explorations of character duality and violence staged as visual poetry.

Woo’s best films exude an eccentric brilliance, landing somewhere between a violent ballet and a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Despite the body of work, it appeared unfortunate that Woo’s final action movie in the U.S. is arguably the least exciting, action-lite movie to ever star Ben Affleck and open on Christmas Day.

Twenty years later, we now have “Silent Night,” a one-hour forty-four-minute demonstration that, at age 77, Woo hasn’t lost his touch.

Not one single bit.

Silent Night (2023) Official Trailer - Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudi

Joel Kinnaman stars as Godlock, a father who witnesses his son being shot as a gang war erupts into a flurry of bullets that fatally strikes his backyard. After pursuing the perpetrators, Godlock himself is wounded and  spends extensive time in the hospital recovering.

The agonizing grief Godlock and his wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) experience drains their marriage dry. Saya is aiming to heal, while Godlock plots revenge. As he regains his strength and trains for a violent rampage of vengeance, Godlock has permanently lost his voice.

While the protagonist never speaks a word in the film, the movie also eliminates dialog. There are moments where ambient noise, radio broadcasts and single-word responses chime in, but otherwise, this is a dialog-free movie with a passionate leading turn from Kinnaman, dynamic sound effects and an emotional score by Marco Beltrami to drive the narrative.

As movie gimmicks go, it doesn’t always work.

The lack of dialog doesn’t make the film faster and results in many scenes where I wished the characters would speak up and tell us what’s going on. While things become clearer as the film progresses, there are still plot holes (how does Godlock get access to those mug shots, let alone an empty office in a police station with key evidence and what is the sympathetic cop’s angle in the case?) and somewhat vague moments.

Silent Night Movie Clip - Beginning of the End (2023)

In theory, Woo’s actions-speak-louder-than-words approach to a movie like this makes sense, and the story is much more direct and simpler than anything in “John Wick” or “Taken.” More important than the consistency of the gimmick is how good the action is – while Woo leans more on CGI than he ever did in his earlier years, the staging, pacing and impact of the action is still sensational.

“Silent Night” is sure to be controversial, as this is more a “Death Wish” vigilante crime story than a fanciful crime opera like “John Wick” or any recent Liam Neeson shoot-em-up. The gangster villains are stereotypical, one note and easily disposable, and the violence, to put it mildly, is always explicit.

One could argue that the one-note gang bangers are par for the course for this genre, but you’d have to go back to “Death Wish 3” or other grimy crime thrillers from the Cannon Films vault for comparison. In ways both good and bad, Woo has made an old-fashioned revenge thriller.

I’ll give “Silent Night” this – who would have thought that Woo would make a nastier, pulpier, gorier and more disreputable vengeance action movie than David Fincher’s recent “The Killer”? Comparing the two, which are both brilliantly made, Woo’s film is so rough, it makes Fincher’s movie a Disney+ title by comparison.

THE KILLER | Official Trailer | Netflix

Woo’s signatures are on hand, like the coolest way possible to put on a flowing leather jacket (“Face/Off”), the image of a bird to signify purity (too many to cite), a murdered child that pushes the plot forward (“Face/Off” again), a hero who becomes a villain (Woo’s “The Killer”) and massive auto explosions (“Hard-Boiled”), to cite a few.

There’s also some awkward sentimentality (a less admirable quality to “The Killer”) and, obviously, if you’ve never liked Woo’s fanciful and highly demonstrative action movies, then this won’t work for you.

I admire what Woo and Kinnaman have achieved here, and the action is stunning. While “Hard-Boiled” remains untouchable for me, “Silent Night” is a strong reminder that, when it comes to gunmen flying through the air, while bullets graze everything in their path as birds fly by in slow motion, Woo is the master of this genre.

Three Stars

One Comment

  1. I feel like “Hard Boiled” is the popular choice rather than “The Killer” (my personal favorite). In Asia he will always be the director of “A Better Tomorrow”, which was a massive cultural moment for many countries. I like “Silent Night” quite a bit, but it doesn’t feel like a John Woo movie to me. It’s missing his big trademarks, especially shooting with 2 guns (which one character does for like 3 seconds). The bird thing is also quite different from his usual work.

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