Silent Night Is John Woo Stealing from Himself With an Audacious, Messy, Tightly Choreographed Action Flick

Imagining the reactions to Silent Night, John Woo’s first American outing in years as being labelled derivative is utterly laughable. If the film is derivative of anything, it’s John Woo stealing from himself. The idea that Silent Night is a revenge actioner cribbing from John Wick or Taken is wholly dismissing the idea that neither John Wick or hundreds of action films would exist without John Woo’s visual stylings or cinematic language. ‘Gun fu’? He invented it. There would be no Neo in The Matrix without John Woo. There would be no wuxia inspired mash-ups. Akira Kurosawa invented a kind of cinema that influenced Western films for years, John Woo did the same. John Woo’s inspirations came from martial arts films, film noir, classic westerns, and even Kurosawa – but he put it all through his own lens. He is a progenitor of action cinema and an indelible influence on others.

When we come to Silent Night it is a raggedy affair. The main “gimmick” is our protagonist, Brian Godluck (Joel Kinnaman) was shot in the throat after trying to chase down the gang members who killed his seven-year-old son with a stray bullet in a car shoot out with their rivals. It was Christmas Eve. There are no particular shades of grey in the film. The bad guys are bad guys with no redeeming features (gone is the Woo who was fascinated by triads and their honour codes). Think of Silent Night being more in the vein of Hard Boiled. A city (some border city abutting Mexico) where the police are no longer able to control the violence and lawlessness. It comes down to one man, Godluck, to burn them all no matter what it takes.

Brian Godluck was an ordinary working-class guy living with his wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and son Taylor (Anthony Giulietti) before tragedy hit. Although Woo doesn’t begin the film with this information (rather the chase Godluck is on wearing his Christmas bell and Reindeer sweater) Woo provides many flashbacks – possibly too many. We see Godluck in Las Palomas Hospital (there’s the signature dove) broken and recovering slowly from his injury. We see Saya sitting by his bedside. We are introduced to Detective Vassell (Scott Mescudi).

Back at home, a home still decorated from that fateful Christmas Eve, a still recuperating Godluck begins drinking heavily and refusing to engage with, or share his grief with, Saya. Christmas gifts become symbols of pain, Newtons cradles are shiny mirrors like Christmas baubles to count down time and reflect Brian’s memories. Over time as Brian’s one focus becomes revenge, he loses Saya. He learns what he needs must to “kill them all,” by Christmas eve. A punishing and gruelling training regime which involves becoming extremely jacked, studying hand-to-hand combat (via watching videos), souping up a car to become a weapon and learning how to drive with pinpoint accuracy, and mastering shooting. He’s also running surveillance on the gangs and cartels – amassing enough information to bring them down via not only visceral but legal means.

The Godluck in training section might seem a little slow and heavy handed and arguably it is, but it has a purpose. The calendar is there to count down not only when he will implement his revenge but to also show how disconnected he’s come from Saya. Mother’s Day passes and he doesn’t look at his wife. Her tears drip and Woo cuts to a bullet casing. It’s building, it is all building to a literally bone crunching and stylish end (pure Woo).

The bad guys, represented by the chief enforcer and dealer Playa (Harold Torres), up the ladder cartel man, Anthony Barello Esq. (Vinny O’Brien), and the seemingly unkillable enforcer Ruiz (Yoko Hamamura). There’s a junkie girlfriend, Venus, and an army of interchangeable bad hombres. Woo has no interest in their psychology beyond their greed, violence, mendacity, venality, and their ability to be fodder or close-up action antagonists. The whole point of the film is watching Godluck and eventually Vassell take down the gangbangers by any means.

That’s not to say that Woo isn’t interested in symbolism – the film is weighted by it, but complexity is not his goal when it comes to revenge. The emotion is all with Godluck, Saya, and their grief. As an audience you want Godluck to triumph because there is no sense of this being anything but deserved vigilante justice.

All the hallmarks of a Woo film are employed. Gun fu, car fu, the slow-motion ballet of bullets and cars flipping over. One on one close hand and knife fights, Mexican standoffs. It’s incredibly stylish and bravura stuff by Woo. It’s also Woo going through his own playbook. The film has some of the most confounding sound design. There are loud sirens, the cracking sounds of bullets in the background which permeate the work, but when it comes to the action scenes Woo plays certain elements as muffled. When we should hear a huge crash, we don’t. When we should hear guns up-close, they sound like they’re being shot in another building. Instead, we hear breathing. It is easy to understand why Woo and screenwriter Robert Archer Lynn chose the dialogue free option, but you will wonder why the sound mix is so off kilter.

How one responds to Silent Night comes down to a few factors. If you want extended Woo doing Woo, you will get it. Motorcycle chases, car stunts, fighting in stairwells, loads of guns, explosions, a hero trench coat. People dying in horrible (and deserved) ways. If you are after some kind of subtlety, there is none to be had. If you want great performances beyond the physical – they’re not really there. Kinnaman has to mug his way through his part and his facial and bodily reactions are all you have. Sometimes his face does not match the situation – where he should be giving eyes of death to the enemy, he’s looking confused. Kinnaman comes off a lot better when he’s dealing with grief and memory. A wind-up music box that he gave Taylor becomes his litmus test to whether he is succeeding.

Silent Night is audacious, melancholy, action-packed, and profoundly messy. It’s also tightly choreographed, staged with oodles of style (Playa’s home is perfect), and about as nuanced as a knife in the jugular. If you’re after a guy going out and burning everything down (literally and metaphorically) then Silent Night is a must. Silent Night is Woo condensed into a fairly uncomplicated package. Is it his greatest work? Not even close. Is it his worst? Absolutely not. No matter which way you slice it, and it can go either way, Woo is a seminal action director who in his seventies can still pull out a banger even if it’s not entirely coherent.

Director: John Woo

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Kid Cudi

Writer: Robert Archer Lynn

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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