'Silent Night,' Holy Night, All Is Calm, All Is Dull

Directed by John Woo

Starring Joel Kinnaman, Harold Torres, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Scott Mescudi

Photo: Carlos Latapi

BY Julian BataPublished Dec 1, 2023

A "heroic bloodshed" genre pioneer, Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo's fingerprints have been all over the English-language action sphere long before he entered Hollywood in the 1990s. Much of Woo's filmography from his heyday brought a viscerally balletic energy to gunplay, spattered with air dives, debris and doves — and moreover, a big dopey heart that effortlessly belted out grandiose emotional pleas for friendship, loyalty and forgiveness, all undercut by tragedy and the inevitability of loss.

At first blush, Silent Night appears to be a thematically-linked entry into his cinematic canon, marking the director's big return to Hollywood after 20 years. The film centres on grieving family man Brian Godluck (Joel Kinnaman) and his revenge upon the gangsters who killed his son. When Brian is shot in the throat, he loses his ability to speak but gains the basis for the film's novelty. As per the title, Silent Night is largely dialogue-free, with Christmas-set bloodshed ensuing, although the heroics are ironically muted.

Classic Woo films typically navigate similar tragic circumstances: the loss of a loved one, the betrayal of a friend, the stripping of a character's identity, the swapping of faces. Yet, where outings such as 1989's The Killer and 1997's Face/Off grounded those scenarios as necessary dramatic thrusts for their respective narratives, Brian's loss of speech merely embodies a laboured gimmick. There's potential in this premise, especially paired with the director's penchant for free-flowing visual flair, but for all the talk (or lack thereof), very little comes from the concept aside from plainly pantomimed performances.

Kinnaman is committed and relatively believable as our bruised and bloodied hero, an emotionally worn husk whose only solace for the death of his child is murderous revenge. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets nothing to work with, as the lack of dialogue only further detaches their performances from anything resembling dramatic heft. Brian's wife, Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno), is the only other character with anything akin to a motive, but Moreno's efforts are squandered in moments where the film's silent schtick becomes painfully restrictive, occasionally bordering on comedic. The minimal dialogue distracts from an already simple story, testing an audience's capacity to engage with the lacklustre drama.

When it comes time to size up our lead villain, Playa (Harold Torres) — yes that's officially the character's name — is simply a remorseless murderer with face tattoos and little identity beyond his status as a violent gangbanger. Meanwhile, for disillusioned detective Dennis Vassel (Scott Mescudi), his call to action essentially comes down to taking up arms and setting down that thin blue line — push back against protocol, help kill the gangsters and all is made right. While Woo's oeuvre often evokes a broader sense of humanity rather than realism, it's unfortunate that these characters feel so out of touch — retro to a fault — with only a passing resemblance to actual multidimensional people.

Following a long line of frenetic masterpieces, Woo has all of the contemporary technological storytelling devices at his disposal, and yet he simply cannot bring out the humanity within Robert Archer Lynn's generic-as-sin screenplay. While tight productions and sparse scripts have always seemingly been a part of the director's processes in the past, in execution, Silent Night lacks an emotional core, to the point that little of Woo's spirit can be found within the yuletide misery on display. And like a lump of coal at the bottom of a stocking, it's disappointing to find the director's craftsmanship so evidently stunted here. A climactic effort to borrow from 1992's Hard Boiled falls desperately short of what he accomplished over 30 years ago. While this scene is the closest the film ever gets to being quintessential Woo, it points to the troubles plaguing the entire experience — the seams are transparent, the sparks far less destructive and the whole thing is over before it even gets started.

The straightforward genre thrills Silent Night attempts to sell are staggeringly unaccomplished and ill-conceived. By underplaying Woo's musicality, dance-like fight choreography and larger-than-life emotions, Silent Night's surface-level simplicity runs all the way through to its core, failing to find a compelling voice of its own.
(VVS Films)

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