JOHN Woo is a Hong Kong director who hit it big in Hollywood with such action movies that are marked with operatic sensibilities as “Broken Arrow” (1996) and “Face Off” (1997), both starring John Travolta. His last films in Hollywood were “Windtalkers” and “Paycheck” (2002 and 2003), which both flopped.
Now, after 20 years, he’s back with “Silent Night”, not to be confused with the Keira Knightley film of the same title shown two years ago.
This one stars Joel Kinnaman (“Robocop”, “Suicide Squad”) as Brian, a father whose happy family life was shattered on Christmas Eve.
The movie opens with him running after warring gangs who are shooting at each other. He gets to chase them but one heavily tattooed gang member corners him and shoots him in the neck. He lands in the hospital.
His voice box was shattered so he can no longer speak. In flashbacks, we learn that his only son died after he was hit by a stray bullet on their frontyard during the shooting. Woo’s best film, “Face Off”, also opens with a dad, John Travolta, experiencing the death of his son in a shooting.
Brian is inconsolable after losing his son. He turns to drink and fails to relate with his wife, Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno), so she eventually leaves him. Consumed by anger and revenge, he then trains himself to exact vengeance on the guilty gang of drug traffickers.
He trains on how to use a knife, shoot a gun, drive a car like a drag racer and works out in his gym to make sure he’ll be very physically fit when he attacks the gang’s lair.
Since Brian cannot talk, the film unfolds without any spoken dialogue. All the lines you’ll hear are news reports from the radio or television.
This dialogue-free concept is not new as it has just been used more effectively in the scifi-horror flick “No One Will Save You” where a young woman fights an alien invasion in their town.
John Woo used to be an action maestro but after being away from Hollywood for 20 long years, it seems that he has lost his touch. He dwells so much on the grieving, drinking then training portion of Brian that it becomes boring after a while.
It takes exactly one year after the tragedy before Brian executes his revenge plans, after transforming himself into a lethal weapon, also on Christmas Eve like when his son died. And it takes about an hour before any really exciting action scene takes place.
What we get is a lot of flashback scenes showing Brian in good and happy times with his son. Woo then chooses to shoot the numerous fight scenes with a dark gritty look that sometimes, you cannot figure out what is happening on screen. And despite its Christmasy title, there is hardly any attempt to inject any Christmas aesthetics into the proceedings.
The whole tone is truly gloomy, angry, plain ugly. The decision to turn all the other characters into mutes who also don’t say a word makes it all a ridiculous gimmick, specially the beleaguered wife who never gets to voice any of her valid feelings about her grieving’s husband obvious descent into bitter madness.
In these days when John Wick is king of action flicks, John Woo looks outdated. There is this gunfight sequence in a staircase as Brian storms the gang’s headquarters singlehandedly. There’s a lot of on screen death but it certainly pales in comparison to the staircase sequence at Sacre Coeur in ‘John Wick 4’, which is more brutal and intense but executed with so much aplomb and style to make the personal plight of a lone avenger taking the law into his own hands much more believable.
There is another interesting character in “Silent Night”, that of the black detective who follows Brian into the gang’s lair (Scott Mescudi). But his character is not all developed for us to see that he’d have evolved some kind of rapport with the rampaging killing machine.
Unfortunately, he’s not given any significant exposure until the finale when he follows Brian in his bloody showdown with the bad guys, who are all Hispanics. Even the main villain, the guy with tattoos on his face is not given much mayhem to do except have a long stupid dance sequence with his drug-crazed girlfriend while they’re surrounded by golden balloons.
In all fairness to Joel Kinnaman, he’s quite good and gives his all as the avenging father so absorbed in revenge at the expense of everything else in his life that it totally consumes him. He deserves a better material. And a better director.