Woo’s Hollywood Return Silent Night is as Frustrating as it is Spectacular
John Woo is a living legend. The Hong Kong filmmaker is best known for transforming action cinema as we know it with the one-two punch of The Killer and Hard Boiled, but he made an equally permanent mark with the likes of A Better Tomorrow, Once a Thief, and the devastatingly brilliant Bullet in the Head. Woo journeyed to Hollywood in the early 1990s and unleashed Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission: Impossible II in quick succession.
It’s hard to say what happened after that. Hollywood endeavors like his WWII historical epic Windtalkers and his loopy sci-fi programmer Paycheck failed to click with audiences, and while both are deserving of reappraisal, it’s still easy to see why Woo eschewed working for any of the major studios and instead returned to Hong Kong. There he would tackle several personal projects, most notably the masterful, almost five-hour historical epic Red Cliff (released in the US in a truncated, if still outstanding, 148-minute cut in 2009).
Talk has been brewing about Woo returning to Hollywood for years. But every time his name was attached to a project, that seemed more like wishful thinking on the part of the director’s fans than anything substantive. This changes with the Christmas Eve–set Silent Night. Told completely without intelligible dialogue, this tale of merciless bloody revenge hits all the themes of brotherhood, faith, honor, and family Woo has built his career upon, and it’s easy to see why the iconoclastic auteur was inspired by the project.
If only this all led to better news. While it’s nowhere near a bad movie, Silent Night is nonetheless still disappointing. After a strong opening and a superb slow-burn build to the climax, the last hour of this thriller moves in frustrating fits and starts. There are moments of that old Woo magic, but sadly not enough of them. It feels more like a straight-to-VHS 1990s retread that would litter the aisles of your neighborhood video store, with only a little Woo panache sprinkled in here and there, and that’s too bad.
I do love the setup. After a goofily masterful prologue of sound and fury showcasing protagonist Joel Kinnaman’s futile attempt to go after feuding gang members who inadvertently killed his only son (and getting himself shot in the throat for his efforts), the next third is all pained melodramatic angst as Woo sets the foundation for the main event. Kinnaman and former Academy Award nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) channel their inner John Gilbert and Renée Adorée, the pair intimately showcasing the tragic devolution of a marriage under unfathomable circumstances as the former crumbles under the strain of their grief and the latter heartbreakingly has to walk away to save what’s left of her own sanity.
Things go pretty much as expected from there. The father transforms his grief into rage, getting himself into tip-top fighting shape while also learning everything he can about the drug cartel responsible for his son’s murder. On the one-year anniversary of the shooting, he heads into the night and proceeds to start a one-man war that will leave the inner-city streets covered in blood, everything building to a final confrontation with the Big Bad (Harold Torres) who runs things with the requisite iron fist (and an army packing automatic weapons).
The zero-dialogue concept is intriguing and, as already stated, Kinnaman and Moreno are more than up to the challenge of conveying a variety of complex and competing emotions with only their facial expressions and body movements. But the emotional impact of this stylistic approach is oddly lessened once the action starts. Robert Archer Lynn’s screenplay is sprinkled with numerous good ideas (like the unintended consequences and collateral damage caused by this angry father’s machinations), but there’s not really any way to dwell on or deal with very many of them. It’s strangely irritating.
Another issue is that the supporting characters, most notably Torres’ ferocious villain and Kid Cudi’s noble police detective, don’t get much to do other than show up, fire their guns, engage in some fisticuffs, and ultimately not much else. They make precious little of an impression, which is perplexing. In one of these instances, we’re talking about an evil antagonist who caused the death of a child, after all, so for Torres to be so forgettable is an obvious problem.
Those moments of Woo magnificence are admittedly something else, however, and to be treasured. There’s a stairwell climb that rekindles some of that Hard Boiled virtuosity, while a fight between Kinnaman and one of the baddie’s most unkillable assassins is a thunderous, bone-breaking treat. It’s during these sequences that the film comes sparklingly alive, and I happily reveled in each and every one of them.
Granted, this only makes Woo’s US return all the more vexing. These blasts of violent inspiration are a bullet-riddled reminder of what the director is capable of and makes all of the film’s shortcomings feel even more egregiously infuriating than they actually are. But even if Silent Night is lesser Woo, it’s still nice to have the Hong Kong titan flexing his action muscles in Hollywood again, and all I want for Christmas is an announcement that he’ll have another present for us to unwrap in the very near future.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)