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‘Silent Night’ (2023, review)

Silent Night represents John Woo’s return to Hollywood after a twenty year absence.

Trailers breathlessly proclaim him to be “the Michelangelo of the Action Film”, and this film is clearly meant to re-introduce him to an American audience before his long awaited English language remake of The Killer drops next year.

As a long time fan, I was heartened to see the respect paid to the Maestro, but most intrigued by the specifics of the film itself.

You see, Silent Night is a dialogue free 90 minute revenge story, and the idea of one of the most dynamic living visual storytellers having to carry the narrative of a feature film without words was irresistible.

Does the film actually live up?

Mostly.

I got very excited during the first third of the film because it felt like we were watching a great film develop. The very first sequence reveals the dramatic potential of the gimmick: Joel Kinneman, decked out in a bad Christmas sweater, is running at top speed down an alley. He hops a guardrail, slides down an embankment to a lower street and stops, listening for something.

Far in the background we see two cars exchanging gunfire and there’s a beat where we think “Ok, he’s safe.” Then after a big ambiguous close up he takes off towards the gunfire, and we realize he’s not running from anything…he’s running after these people.

The story is absurdly simple: Kinneman plays Brian, a young father whose son is killed on Christmas Day as an innocent bystander in a gangland shooting. When Brian runs down the gangsters, he’s shot in the throat and rendered mute by gang leader Playa (Harold Torres). Brian recovers physically, but cannot find a reason to go on living until the following Easter where he resolves himself to avenge himself the following Christmas.

The final act is his rampage of revenge through Playa’s organization.

The first two thirds are inventive: filled with slick transitions, and made with a lot of trust that the audience is watching closely and thinking about what they’re seeing. It should be noted that the film doesn’t have quite as much trust in the audience as one would like: it uses diegetic radio broadcasts and text messages to establish setting and to “stand in” for dialogue in places.

Even with that small caveat, the first hour creates momentum at a maniacal pace. The symbolic “death” and “resurrection” of Brian (which Woo, one of our great Christian filmmakers, times to Christmas and Easter) coincide with a moral dissolution as he neglects his grieving wife to the point where she is forced to abandon him.

Finally after all the training montages we could want December 24th gets circled and we’re ready to see the payoff for all this investment.

And…it’s just good.

The action reminded me very much of Woo’s 2017 film ManHunt with the free combination of vehicles and gunplay but without that film’s tendency to wink at the audience during every big action sequence. There’s a lot of kinetic impact but it lacks the high style of Woo’s Hong Kong oeuvre, there’s a great emotional investment from Joel Kinneman but once the shooting starts he becomes just another action hero.

Admittedly, there is one truly great moment in the third act for a Woo fan where his trademark “criminal and cop find mutual respect for one another on the battlefield” trope is basically condensed into a thirty second silent bit of sustained eye contact, but other than that I felt that the ending let down the set up.

The problem, to me, seems simple enough to diagnose: they had a neat narrative gimmick in the service of a very simple story and in the first two acts the gimmick livened up familiar tropes and made everything feel fresh.

That said, when the shooting started the gimmick became a hindrance and since the no dialogue limitation had to be in service to the story, they never asked themselves “What kind of third act would work best for a film without dialogue?” rather than, “How can we get to the big shootout we need at the end.”

Now don’t get me wrong: two-thirds of a really good movie and one-third of an acceptable movie adds up to a pretty good movie. This is an easy recommendation, and should be a hearty “Welcome back!” to one of our greatest living directors, and it mostly is.

I just can’t help but think another draft, with a stronger finale, would have elevated this from good to incredible. Woo got a lot of good shots in, but he left with bullets still in the clip.

Recommended.
7/10.

 

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