With over 40 years of mastering his craft in the action genre, Hong Kong director John Woo is undoubtedly responsible for some of the greatest cinematic action moments of all time. Whether it’s Hard Boiled’s insane one-shot takes that showcase an unbelievable level of stunt work and gunfire, or the iconic white doves flying in the foreground while a gigantic explosion ripples shockwaves in the background, your favourite action scenes from your favourite action films of the 80s and 90s, were either directly from or influenced by John Woo. There’s a reason the Quentin Tarantino himself sings Woo’s praises so highly!
And now, 20 years since his last English language film, Woo has returned to Los Angeles to tackle a completely new challenge within the action genre – a film with zero dialogue. Silent Night combines all the elements of what’s to be expected of a John Woo film: explosive action, heightened melodrama, and a bolstering score, but with a key ingredient of story telling being completely removed from the movie, Woo, along with the voiceless and nameless lead character played by Joel Kinnaman, must pull out (literally) the big guns to pull off such an audacious trick. And while there are elements of Silent Night that don’t reach the heights of Woo’s preceding filmography, there’s enough to enjoy about this action-packed, revenge-thriller that deems it worthy of a trip to the big screen, even if it’s to experience John Woo on the big screen again.
On Christmas Eve, a father (Kinnaman) witnesses the horrific death of his young son when he is caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. Despite his attempts to chase the gang down in an adrenaline fuelled rage, the father fails in getting his immediate revenge and is instead shot in the throat. Although he survives, his ability to talk is taken away, causing a dramatic communication rift between his heartbroken self, and his grieving wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Driven by revenge and fuelled by anger, the father spends a year preparing himself for a bloody and violent gang war, and vengeance for his son.
Silent Night wastes no time propelling the audience into the frenzied shootout that takes the life of Kinnaman’s characters son. As suped-up car tires skid through suburban streets, barrages of bullets fly through the air, and composer Marco Beltrami’s score pulses through the speakers, there is an instant intensity that spikes the adrenaline and seemingly promises bombastic mayhem ahead. It’s also an opening that immediately puts to rest any concerns that the 87-year-old John Woo has lost his action touch, because there’s some great choreography here, and only gets better with each action scene.
However, it’s at the climax of this scene that the film takes a long breather and focuses on the emotional core of the story – a father riddled by grief and revenge. This is where the melodrama arrives at full speed, predominantly due to an overbearing, piano and strings heavy orchestral score that stands in place of the dialogue. In any other film, Kinnaman’s father character would explicitly state, using words, how destroyed his is by his son’s death. But in the absence of words, Beltrami’s bellowing music acts as the dialogue equivalent with obvious cues and notes that direct the audience towards feeling the appropriate emotion for the appropriate moment. At times, it’s a little too on the nose, and at other times, the commitment to the melodrama is respectable because it’s a movie that takes its premise and character seriously but heightens everything that is happening around them.
There is also a repetitive lull during the middle portion of the film as it focuses on Kinnaman training to become a one-man killing machine. Montages of him going from respectably fit to jacked Adonis by way of single kettlebell training, learning the art of the pistol of firing ranges, and drifting muscle cars around empty car parks become tiresome once the point of these scenes becomes apparent – he is becoming a single man army. When the film becomes a montage… of montages, the desire for the film to get a move on begins to rear its head. Despite the addition of a detective character (played by Kid Cudi) who is investigating the recent rise in gangland murders and add another level of tension hanging over Kinnaman’s characters head, there’s not enough happening with that character and story line to feel like it adds urgency or substance to the movie overall. And in all honestly, the absence of dialogue for that character too probably hinders those scenes more than helps.
Even though the lead up to Silent Night’s anticipated action-packed finale feels slightly lacklustre and quite muddled, the final 30 minutes is worth the wait. It’s violent, it’s bloody, it’s insane, it’s explosive, and most of all, it’s a helluva lot of fun! The physicality and choreography of multiple shootouts and hand-to-hand punch offs showcase the amazing work from the stunt teams involved, the practical and visual effects teams, and Woo himself as a fantastic collaboration of action violence. But surprisingly more so, there is a lot of emotional weight behind the action which pulls the audience in even more, cheering Kinnaman’s character on to get his justice by way of as much bloodshed as possible.
A lot of Silent Night needs Kinnaman to be able to perform without speaking to work, and he truly succeeds with a brilliant facial performance the emotes so much pain and anger through his eyes and permanent scowl. Even the lingering tenseness of his body is noticeable. Then, as his character becomes more and more ready for the imminent revenge plan to come into effect, the brutality of his violence is exacerbated by his characters hurt. It can’t be an easy job having to work an entire character’s range of emotions without ever saying how he feels, but Kinnaman pulls it off.
Silent Night delivers on the majority of what it intentionally offers. While sparse at points, the action is exciting and thrilling, with an overarching brutality that’s fuelled by rage and revenge, a feeling that is felt entirely through a strong performance from Joel Kinnaman. At times, the lulls in the story and the muddle pacing can lead to some thumb twiddling while waiting for something new to happen, but Woo balances the intensity of the action and the melodrama of the premise to make a film that’s absolutely worth a watch on the big screen.
Silent Night is in Australian cinemas December 7, courtesy of Rialto Distribution.
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