It's a tale old as time: a grieving middle-aged man turns vigilante and goes on an epic action revenge spree in the name of insert-loved-one (wife, dog, wife and dog, child, etc). I am an unabashed lover of this trope when done right, and I love Christmas. So what have you? When I heard action pioneer John Woo was returning to Hollywood after 20 years to take that on with Silent Night, I was seated. I will have you know this is not to be confused with 'Violent Night' (2022), a Christmas action movie about a middle-aged Santa who kills a bunch of people. This is a Christmas action movie about Brian (Joel Kinnaman, TV's 'The Killing'), a middle-aged regular guy who kills a bunch of people.
In 'Silent Night', Woo introduces us to Brian Godlock as he bursts into the world of small-town gang violence when his young son is shot in his front yard during a drive-by gang fight. His strong yet sufficiently-vulnerable-for-the-plot wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is relegated to watching her once-doting husband turn into a cold and detached shell of a man obsessed with revenge.
However, this time there's a twist. In his grief-stricken rage immediately following the tragedy, Brian had gone on a hapless attempt to chase down the villains responsible for the death of his son. In an ill-fitting Christmas sweater, he successfully manages to rack up a modest amount of collateral damage before he gets shot straight in the throat by a tattooed man we learn is called Playa (Harold Torres). While alive, Brian is left without the ability to speak. In this vein, the entire movie features no dialogue ('Silent Night'... get it?), obeying to the T the first page and first line of the Introduction to Filmmaking Handbook –– "Show Not Tell".
'SILENT NIGHT' TRAILER
Instead, fists aided by ambient sounds and the occasional on-screen captions (text messages, etc) do the talking. Brian screams silently in the mirror in frustration. Passerbys laugh but never enunciate what their joy is about. But is such an interesting premise enough to carry a 104-minute runtime and story skeleton we've seen on the screen even more times than a new MCU project? Unfortunately, 'Silent Night' remains dull.
I don't think excessive chatter is necessary for a good action movie – the most recent example is the wildly praised 'John Wick: Chapter 4', directed by Chad Stahelski, which featured the titular character muttering a grand total of 380 words in a nearly three-hour runtime (fact). 100 of those words were probably a variation of "yeah" (speculation). It's commonly acknowledged that we wouldn't even have 'John Wick' (or the many other Hollywood revenge action films) without John Woo. With a stylistic flair – this is the man who brought the visual spectacle of gun fu to the big screen – I was ready to see what he would present when pushing this premise of the silent action protagonist to its limits.
Although words aren't so much needed, we desire a good spectacle and story; something to keep us paying attention and invested. What makes this aggrieved middle-aged guy someone we care about? What's going on in the screen that keeps us from tearing our eyes away?
While I wish I could say this has been accomplished in 'Silent Night', unfortunately, I cannot. The film ticks off all the tropes and story beats, losing a compelling main character and enough engaging visuals along the way. After losing his speech, Brian vows to exact revenge one year later at Christmas. Just in case he forgets this, he scrawls "Kill Them All" on his calendar and circles the date. Woo mostly turns the camera away from the lacklustre police force, where the only officer involved in the story is played by Kid Cudi (Dennis Vessel).
The film ticks off all the tropes and story beats, losing a compelling main character and enough engaging visuals along the way.
Instead, all eyes are on Brian who, to the chagrin of his teary-eyed wife, is wildly focused on hunting down Playa and his associates. He buys a beat-up car and learns to drift with maniacal glee. He learns how to fight from YouTube (which I do agree is somewhat the best place to learn things nowadays). During this sequence, we are teased at the precipice of greatness - maybe we are onto something awesome here when a tear slips down Saya's cheek and is match cut with one of the bullets raining down during Brian's gun training. Alas, this never comes to fruition.
I have watched Kinnaman successfully play a man who would rather speak with his fists in Netflix's 'Altered Carbon' (RIP), so this casting is tried and tested. But between the hodgepodge of everything (skills, script, visuals and edit), he lacks the forbidden moody-sexiness of John Wick (Keanu Reeves in 'John Wick: Chapter 4), the steady charm of Robert McCall (Denzel Washington in 'The Equalizer 3') or the entertaining spectacle of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One'). In essence, his character never moves engagingly beyond the fact he is, well... silently about to exact revenge in the night. This makes it even more frustrating knowing that Woo himself has been a significant influence on the aforementioned worlds, even having an early-day 'Mission: Impossible' under his belt – a movie which, for all its flaws, finds spectacle in moments.
I must acknowledge Woo's last Hollywood film came out before I was even born, giving first a sense of my very youthful nature and second an admission that I lack the tender nostalgia-filled fondness for him that others have wrapped up their 'Silent Night' dislike with. However, I doubt that his visuals alone were dull. Perhaps they were knee-capped further in the editing room. But finger-pointing aside, the final nail in the coffin is the racist tropes; we see the most stereotypical, underdeveloped Hispanic villains gunned down with mania by white guy Brian. While Woo is legendary in the industry. 'Silent Night' is sadly far from this.
TLDR: The worst man you know is currently adding this film to his Letterboxd favourites as we speak.