Review by Daniel Lima
It is incredibly hard for an artist, no matter how great, to sustain creative success into perpetuity. Circumstances change, the artist changes, and eventually, they are forced to either adapt and find new things to say, new ways to express themselves, or otherwise become a pale shadow of what they once were. With Silent Night, his first American production in over two decades, legendary director John Woo attempts to prove that he still has what it takes to deliver an emotionally charged and exhilarating action film. It might be a laudable effort in theory, but it quickly proves to be bereft of all the things that made him so acclaimed in the first place.
Joel Kinnaman plays a man who, after his son is killed in a drive-by shooting on Christmas Eve, prepares himself for a one-man war against the street gang that shot him. As an added twist to this well-worn revenge narrative, there is no dialogue, forcing the entire story to be told through visual and musical cues. It's a novel take on the formula, and one could imagine the John Woo of the 80's Hong Kong New Wave knocking it out of the park.
To his credit, the director does commit to the conceit. The storytelling is always crystal clear, laying out the characters' goals and motivations, allowing a handful of expressionistic flourishes to sell their emotional state, and developing the investigative plot as Kinnaman unravels the criminal organization. Without prior knowledge, one wouldn't guess that this is the work of a septuagenarian working within an industry he hasn't been a part of for decades; this feels like the work of a young director given the opportunity to do something a bit off-beat.
Not feeling like a John Woo movie, however, is a double-edged sword. It cannot be overstated how important Woo was to action cinema, with an unparalleled ability to imbue the most explosive, kinetic set pieces ever devised with pathos and beauty beyond most straight dramas. His best work interrogated notions of honor, loyalty, and brotherhood, possessing a rhythm and look unlike anything else at the time. Even his lesser Hollywood work, compromised as it was by executive oversight, still felt like it was coming from a singular auteur. As recognizable as his ideas and motifs were, he was nearly impossible to replicate.
Those idiosyncrasies are absent in Silent Night. Woo's keen visual eye, once so textured and intimate, has given way to a rote mid-budget studio sheen, looking like any number of anonymous Netflix releases. Beyond the low contrast lighting and workmanlike compositions, there is a curious lack of all of Woo's typical embellishments: the slow motion, the transitions that allow scenes to flow into each other, even the doves (a parrot shows up early on, seeming like a thumbing of the nose at the viewer's expense). The exceedingly rare moment where he does take a swing, typically quite at home in his more overtly stylized and melodramatic work, stands out as a non-sequitur in an otherwise grounded film.
Perhaps this is Woo deciding to do away with what people expect of him, or maybe the realities of shooting an action film in 2023 on an American studio's dime preclude their inclusion. Either way, the result is a predictable revenge thriller that, while not especially ugly compared to its contemporaries, looks like it might have been directed by anybody.
That gimmick only goes so far in distinguishing the film. The "one man seeking vengeance" power fantasy is familiar to modern audiences, one that has never called for much dialogue, and Woo is more acclaimed for his direction than his screenwriting. It quickly becomes evident that its lack won't be much of an impediment, so the film's unique element ends up being moot.
More debilitating than the speechless characters is the actual narrative structure. Kinnaman is not a ruthlessly efficient killer at the start, so he must train and prepare himself for his crusade for an entire year, intending to mete out justice on the anniversary of his son's death. That means most of the film is just a training montage, watching this silent, bland protagonist steel his body and mind as he withdraws into himself. Without Woo's trademark style lending this a particular verve and heart, there is no reason to remain emotionally engaged in his quest. By the time the action starts in earnest, it's a challenge to muster up the energy to care.
For as long as the action is withheld, in the latest film from the consensus pick for the greatest action director of all time, what is here is sorely lackluster. A classic John Woo gunfight is impeccably composed, a tightly controlled cacophony of violence, but it was also operatic, baroque, and grandiose. As booming and destructive as the bullets and the car crashes were, there was always grace, with the action serving as a particularly out-sized representation of whatever animated Woo at the time. Even his previous American outings, hampered as they were by studios, managed to retain these qualities.
Here, in the final act that all the big set pieces are relegated to, he is as clamped down and restrained as the rest of the film, eschewing all his trademarks in favor of the modern 87eleven style of action. It's bloody, brutal, and tactical — all the hallmarks of any movie influenced by John Wick (Jeremy Marinas, fight coordinator for the latest in that franchise, served as stunt coordinator here). It's not bad action by any stretch of the imagination, certainly not by the low standards of Hollywood. It's all clearly photographed; characters move through the environment and actively utilize it in the choreography, and it does maintain a sweaty, desperate energy.
What it lacks, unfortunately, is anything to distinguish it from dozens of other bloody, brutal, and action set pieces in the past five years. Maybe Woo truly was energized by the changing landscape of action cinema and wanted to play around here. Perhaps he was forced to hand over the reins to a younger pair of hands, but either way, the style he pioneered is completely absent. Even a hint of the old master would have been welcome in 2023, where even the best action set pieces lack the deep emotions that Woo was able to weave into them. To see even the climactic payoff of this film be so indebted to others, rather than a reflection of Woo's own predilections, is nothing but disappointing.
In truth, this is the inescapable flaw of Silent Night: it does not feel like the work of John Woo, an artist whose fingerprints can be seen in everything else he's ever touched. As bombastic as his most celebrated works are, they always have something more on their mind, underpinning all the cordite smoke, blood, pain, and chaos. The Killer questions how feasible a black-and-white moral code can be in a world of gray, if arbitrary societal divides are insurmountable, and whether redemption can ever truly be attained. Bullet in the Head is a bleak and tragic portrait of suffering and war, actively challenging his penchant for finding serenity in violence. Even Paycheck, his last American outing, offered a fleeting interest in the nature of fate and predestination.
By contrast, this film is just a bog-standard thriller. There's so little going on beyond the shallow stylistic exercise that it's hard to take even the questionable portrayal of minorities and women to heart (though admittedly, the latter, in particular, is a thread in all his films). If one were uncharitable, there's not much stopping an interpretation where this movie is Woo announcing a full-throated endorsement of vigilante justice, as there is no sign that his undertaking is anything other than cool and justified. Or perhaps that would be charitable because it would mean the director had some actual stake in a project otherwise lacking any personal stamp.
Arguing that an artist should not change their style is ludicrous, but Silent Night is not a director stretching his wings. This feels like a mercenary gig, with John Woo acting as a gun for hire, and that lack of investment in the material is evident in every solitary frame. From any other filmmaker, this might have been a bland, forgettable actioner, soon consigned to the ashbin of cinema history. From the man who made Hard Boiled, this is an especially embarrassing misfire.
Silent Night arrives in theaters December 1.