Joel Kinnaman puts on a Christmas jumper to kill gangsters in John Woo’s festive action flick, Silent Night. Our review…
There isn’t a single dove to be found in Silent Night, director John Woo’s first American movie in 20 years, though there is the surprise inclusion of a parakeet sitting on a windowsill in one early scene.
Otherwise, though, Silent Night marks a return of sorts to the ‘heroic bloodshed’ action that made Woo so influential in the 80s and 90s – here you’ll find frenetic gunfights, a heavy use of slow-motion, characters dual-wielding pistols, and a tone that treads a delicate line between the deadly serious and complete absurdity.
Silent Night’s story is simplicity itself: one Christmas eve, a high-speed shootout between rival gangsters sees the young son of Texan family man Brian (Joel Kinnaman) slain in the crossfire. In a rage, Brian tries to pursue the gangsters, only to receive gunshot wounds that leave him severely injured and unable to speak. After months of grieving and quiet fury, Brian then resolves to avenge his son’s death, and begins hunting down the assorted villains responsible.
The high-concept twist is that Silent Night is told almost entirely without dialogue – placing it in the same subgenre as, among other things, Steven Spielberg’s Duel and this year’s aliens-up-in-the-kitchen thriller, No One Will Save You. In those films, though, the absence of chatter served to highlight the solitary nature of their protagonists; in Silent Night, it feels like more of a contrivance, given there are lots of scenes where characters (besides Brian) would ordinarily talk to one another but don’t, purely because of screenwriter Robert Archer Lynn’s self-imposed no-conversation rule.
Without a single line to utter in the whole movie, however, Joel Kinnaman delves deep and conjures up a surprisingly committed performance. His portrayal of a grief-struck, angry husk is quite affecting; the story itself may be shallow, but Kinnaman lends it more grit and gravitas than it perhaps deserves. Likewise composer Marco Beltrami, whose score provides a note of tenderness between all the bullets and chaos.
Not that Woo rushes to get to the violent bits: in terms of action, Silent Night is, for the most part, closer to the first, 1974 Death Wish movie than something like John Wick. Rather, the story bides its time as Brian recovers from his wounds, pumps iron, practises his advanced driving techniques, and polishes up his gun and knife skills. There’s even a scene where Brian modifies his car, A-Team style. When the bloody vengeance does finally begin to unfurl, it’s far from the orgiastic level of the director’s magnum opus, Hard Boiled – though let’s face it, what is? – but is solidly staged and recognisably Woo-esque.
Over 50 years into his long career, Woo still knows how to make two cars colliding look convincingly messy, and from which precise angle to film a bullet to the head for maximum, wince-inducing impact. Silent Night lacks the budget to stage anything as grandiose as the set-pieces we saw at the height of Woo’s Hollywood powers – the likes of Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2 – but his backstreet vehicular chases and grubby stairwell gun battles still have much of the same old spark.
There are also some pleasing flourishes away from the action: there’s a captivating little moment where a single tear rolling down a cheek match-cuts precisely to a falling bullet. A hard-to-describe altercation between Brian and a hoodlum lying on the roof of his car ends with a curiously funny low-angle shot of blood trickling down the windscreen. It’s an example of how Woo has long been adept at balancing the violent, the grotesque, and the blackly comic.
If only the characters surrounding Brian and his rampage weren’t so thinly sketched. The villains have only slightly more dimension than those tin ducks people shoot at fairgrounds; likewise Catalina Sandino Moreno, as Brian’s wife Saya, or Scott Mescudi as a local detective, who have nothing to say and little to do.
Silent Night is far from first-class John Woo, then, but it’s livened up by a highly watchable lead performance from Kinnaman, and some solidly entertaining action in the old heroic bloodshed vein. Certainly, it left this writer hoping that Woo will make at least one more film in the style he pioneered – and maybe next time he’ll remember to bring a few doves with him.
Silent Night is out on Sky Cinema from the 23rd December.