After the disastrous 2003 Ben Affleck thriller Paycheck, John Woo took his paycheck and went home back to Hong Kong. For two decades, the master action director has continued to work when he feels like it, most notably on the audacious Red Cliff historical epics. But now he’s back stateside with the mostly dialogue-free holiday thriller Silent Night, a competently-made but generic flick that lacks the John Woo sizzle.
Perhaps it’s the John Wick-ization of the genre, but Silent Night feels a bit too old school at times. This certainly isn’t the gonzo Woo action we’ve been accustomed to. It shows a filmmaker who has definitely matured in style, but it makes for a less interesting movie than it would’ve been with more of a sense of humor. That said, Woo still knows what he’s doing, and makes the most out of a thin, preposterous holiday revenge plot.
A holiday sweater-wearing Joel Kinnaman gets a fun role as the ridiculously-named Brian Godluck, who in the opening moments finds his son murdered by Mexican gangsters in a drive-by shooting. It’s hard not to stifle a chuckle watching Kinnaman, dressed like he’s coming back from an Ugly Christmas Sweater party, goofy red nose on his face and everything, chasing after the killers, only to catch up with them and receive the gift of a bullet to the throat. The result is the loss of his vocal chords, which explains why the bulk of the movie is speech free. Considering Godluck is a real man’s man and can’t express his grief properly, including to his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno, deserving much better than this), being unable to talk only makes matters worse. A quick montage later, a year has gone by and Godluck is a fully-armed and operational battle machine looking for vengeance. No Rudolph red nose from here on out. The only red Godluck wants is blood!
Is the lack of dialogue thing a gimmick? Absolutely. But writer Robert Archer Lynn knows he’s working with a director who has never needed mountains and mountains jibber-jabber. Woo’s wildly over-the-top, stylish action sequences have always spoken for themselves. What’s disappointing is that, once you get past the opening act, Woo unleashes pretty basic shoot ’em up violence. To his credit, he doesn’t just try to ape the John Wick style of gun-fu. The approach is similar to what Liam Neeson has brought to the Taken films and the bulk of the slower-paced action movies he’s done since. Kinnaman is capable of more and he’s genuinely pretty good here, but it would be nice to see him able to cut loose fully.
Godluck’s silence is given the absurd explanation it deserves, but at least it’s something. In a digital age, it’s easier to make a premise like this work. The gangbangers mostly communicate over text, because who wants to chat about the angry alcoholic daddy with a Charles Bronson Complex who is coming to kill them all? The cop on Godluck’s case (Scott Mescudi) is always a step behind, which is fine because he doesn’t have anything to offer, anyway.
It’s ballsy to even try to make a holiday action flick with Die Hard out there still part of the world, but every few years some ambitious filmmaker gives it a go. Woo is more skilled than most who have made the effort, and Silent Night is worth seeking out as a yuletide diversion. But I don’t see Silent Night becoming an annual holiday tradition for anybody, and certainly there won’t be any conversations about whether it’s a Christmas movie or an action movie.
Silent Night opens in theaters on December 1st.