Review: A Master of Action Films, John Woo has Directed Better than Dialogue-Free Revenge Thriller Silent Night

For as long as I’ve been watching films by the legendary director John Woo (I vividly remember sitting in a small New York theater in 1990 watching The Killer), I’ve always found his works something truly special, even the bad ones. When he’s at his best, he’s a pure artist of violence; but even when the resulting films are trash, you can still see the artist peaking through in specific sequences, and that often pulls me through. He’s made true classics, like Hard Boiled, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off, and he’s also made other films (his Mission: Impossible 2 is almost universally considered to be the worst in the series), and I’ll say right off the bat that his latest, Silent Night, is not one of his best. But I will also add that there’s still something audacious, outlandish, and outright ridiculous about the premise and execution of the film, something that’s attempting to be high art yet missing the mark wildly.

Silent Night is the story of a father named Godlock (Joel Kinnaman), whose young son dies in front of him on Christmas Eve. Rival gangs drive down the street he live on, firing guns at each other with no regard for anyone else on their route, when a stray bullet hits his son, leaving Godlock and his wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) in the deepest pain imaginable. Godlock attempts to chase the gang members through the streets, and he gets a bullet to the throat, leaving him without his voice. When he returns home from the hospital, he immediately plans his revenge, leaving his poor wife alone to grieve while Godlock researches the gangs in question and investigates exactly where they live, hang out, and make their illegally gotten money. Over the course of the next year, leading up to Christmas Eve once again (he writes in his calendar “Kill Them All,” in case you hadn’t figured that out), he also teaches himself martial arts, weapons usage, and all of the other training that make a one-man revenge army.

At one point, he attempts to enlist the investigating officer (Kid Cudi) in his plans, but when he sees a series of mug shots of some of the men he’s after on the officer’s wall, he snaps a few photos and gets out of there. The lead gang member is Playa (Harold Torres), who has some fairly severe face tattoos and a junkie girlfriend, so we know he’s bad. Speaking of the gang members, Silent Night feels exceptionally dated, if only because all of the villains are all Latino. And while some of them are given particularly meaty roles, the degree of stereotyping going on in this movie is uncomfortable.

But what makes the film uniquely Woo is the attempt to tell this entire story with no discernible dialogue. Even the characters who can speak, we can’t really hear them. Written by Robert Archer Lynn, Silent Night is in no way a silent movie, however. Every gun shot, explosion, tire squeal and note of bass-heavy music is loud and clear. When someone does speak, the words are muffled to the point where I had to ask myself if Godlock also lost his hearing at some point and I just missed it. The film does cheat a little, like when he and his wife (who leaves him early in the story) text each other or Godlock leaves her a note, so we get the written word instead of having it spoken. But for the most part, no one is talking.

Woo’s trademark balletic gunplay and slow-motion action sequences are all on full display, and they still look great and beautifully choreographed. The blood sprays, the vehicles crashes crunch, and the dramatics from Kinnaman are practically operatic in their over-the-top emotions. In many ways, Woo is the filmmaker who taught me what action movies could be, and that much of the stuff that I grew up loving was child’s play. Silent Night will not teach anyone anything, but I found it a highly watchable, if subpar work from a master filmmaker. That’s not a recommendation, but for some of you, the message should be clear.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.