SILENT NIGHT Review: John Woo Makes a Calculated Return to Hollywood After Twenty Years
Brian’s life was torn apart last Christmas. Brian’s little boy, Taylor, was murdered by a stray bullet from gang violence on Christmas Day. With little left to live for, Brian vows to kill all of those responsible for the death of his son the following Christmas Day.
Joel Kinnaman plays Brian, portraying a man stricken with grief and the impact that the loss of a child has on a marriage and a life. The hook is that during the opening scene when Brian chases after the gang members who shot his son he is shot in the throat by gang boss, Playa. Unable to speak, unwilling to use a electrolarynx, Brian descends into a state of self pity and despair. In a drunken funk for many months, on the cusp of losing his marriage as well, Brian sees his only choice is to go after Playa and his crew.
While the exclusion of dialogue makes Silent Night unlike any action movie you’ve watched before, for Woo’s long-time fans his first foray into making movies in the West after twenty years still feels familiar. Moments that will have you recollecting Woo’s previous work, include a visual esthetic that includes a generous amount of slow motion and sparks. Woo’s admiration for Scorcese and his ever-moving camera results in dynamic camera movement that eliminates the edit capturing scenes in one shot, something a lot of other directors may do in half a dozen cuts and camera angles. .
Woo uses light and dark here to differentiate between the good times and the bad, the past and the present. Warm colors saturate the scenes when Brian recalls memories of time with his son, then the tones get chilly when he comes back to reality. Interestingly enough, Playa’s lair is bathed in a similar warm color. After Brian has infiltrated the gang’s hideout and made his way upstairs, to the final boss level, the color turns golden. Yellow skulls are projected onto the walls. Perhaps this signifies a new good memory that Brian is creating, getting his revenge.
I am fully aware that after you’ve seen Silent Night yourselves that you’ll look on this review as anything but words from a Woo apologist. I owe him that much for being a part of my action cinema foundation as it took shape around the time of his introduction to Hollywood. It is safe to say as well that his participation during the golden age of Hong Kong cinema was one of the reasons why we as a site even exist at all. Silent Night is Familiar Woo, not Vintage Woo. It is a concise revenge thriller, not a grandiose action experience like we were used to experiencing back in his hey day. In that you might be disappointed in the end.
Yes, it is Familiar Woo - Silent Night also has a lot of his trademarks as well. A red balloon rising into the sky symbolizes the loss of innocent life, like in Face/Off. No Woo film would be complete without dual pistols or gangsters on motorbikes wielding machine guns. Welding sparks and a small cache of guns remind us of the warehouse scene from Hard Boiled. Brian and Detective Vassell teaming up in the finale reminds us of the finale in The Killer. Woo’s fashion sense is also on point as Brian flairs the long coat he is wearing before he rides into the gang’s base. No flaming pigeon door like in M:I2 but we’re taking all of this as a win for Woo fans.
I’ve heard from some folks who have witnessed the meteoric rise of Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves that they find those films, and those coming out of their ripple effect, overwhelming (the fuck you say?). With a solid back half committed to carrying out Brian’s revenge Silent Night is end-heavy but it is moderate with the action. After the opening action sets a precedent and serves as a reminder of whose directing we’re watching, the first twenty-five minutes are devoted to the tragedy of losing a child, and the next twenty-five or so make up the longest training montage in cinematic history, which leaves the final forty-five minutes to celebrate Christmas and Brian’s revenge. It’s not chock-a-block action is what we’re saying.
There are a couple of solid car chase scenes including one standout slow motion collision during the finale. Silent Night is not so much the ballistic ballet that we’d expect. The action here is gritty and dirty. Brian fights his way up a flight of stairs, up the final boss level. It is a somewhat carefully stitched-together sequence of shots which gives the impression that Woo has done a oner, but you can tell. Points for effort and still keeping pace during those moments.
I understand if Silent Night feels, pardon the pun, muted when compared to Woo’s holy trinity (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled) and his first few films in America (Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Face/Off). I understand if he did not come in - gosh darnit, another pun - guns blazing, in his return to Hollywood after twenty years. I think of it as a calculated return for the once conquering hero, who came in and helped change the face of action cinema in the West, then was quickly shunned as lesser fare was offered to him. Here, he’s dipping his big toe in before he dives in head first. That’s still to come as he works on his remake of The Killer.
On one hand you might also say that Woo is being overshadowed by his own legacy. The seeds that he and others in the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema planted all those years ao have born wonderful and stupendous fruits where the students have become masters. Folks like Stahelski and Reeves have taken up the mantle and given us those grandiose action affairs that only use to come from Hong Kong during the golden age.
I choose to believe that Silent Night is a calculated first step back into making action films in the West and that the best is yet to come. For now, I think this is a good start on Woo’s return to Hollywood, dusting off his old bag of tricks and bringing a smile to his fans of old as we watched it.