Friday, December 1, 2023

'Silent Night' (2023) Movie Review

Joel Kinnaman with a shotgun
John Woo is arguably the greatest action director of all time. So, you better believe when the master drops a dialogue-free Christmas-themed revenge movie, I am all over that. Silent Night sees Woo working in what closely approximates a low-budget 1990s direct-to-video action aesthetic. It’s a little sparser and a little less slick than in his heyday, and at times it’s very clear he’s working with a smaller budget, but the Woo still shines through. Though the finished product has been divisive, and certainly doesn’t live up to the director’s career highs, this is a blast of fun, high-octane holiday retribution.


The plot of Silent Night is simple, it’s straight up, no frills vengeance. When his young son catches a stray bullet in a gang war, grieving father Brian Godlock (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), who I took to calling Daddy Justice, enacts a plan to exact revenge on those responsible. On Christmas Eve. Oh, and by the way, while chasing his child’s killers in a blood-soaked Christmas sweater, which is a banger of a way to open a movie, Daddy Justice gets shot in the throat and can no longer speak. So, no one else does either. I wasn’t kidding about the hook, there are only a handful of audible words throughout. 


[Related Reading: 'RoboCop' Movie Review]

man with gun in stairwell

Working within this basic framework, the director packs his film with all the Woo-isms he can muster. We’ve got technical flourishes, like frequent use of slow motion, hyper-stylized running gun battles, and even a winking nod to his penchant for birds flying through frames. Robert Archer Lynn’s script hits on hits on favorite Woo themes like family, and the entire picture overflows with sweeping melodrama, enhanced by a dripping Marco Beltrami score. 


Unlike much of Woo’s best work, however, the morality here is black and white. There are no shades of gray, no blurred lines between right and wrong, and no hand wringing or second thoughts to his actions. Daddy Justice doesn’t care about the consequences, for himself, for what remains of his relationship with his wife, Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno), or even innocent bystanders. Nor does the film concern itself with such matters. He’s going to kill these guys and that’s it. 


[Related Reading: 'Sympathy for the Devil' Movie Review]

over the top santa villain

Honestly, I don’t know that there are many, or any, innocent bystanders. Silent Night exists in a world basically under siege by a problematic litany of movie gangster stereotypes. Every parking lot, every grocery story, every street is awash in vile, mono-dimensional, inhuman reprobates, all led by the main baddie, Playa (a wildly over-the-top Harold Torres). This is one of those movies about gangs and crime made by people who have absolutely no idea what actual gangs or crimes look like. Hilariously, half the goons only have identifiable names because they’re conveniently tattooed in prominent places, often their own faces. Like Ruiz (Yoko Hamamura), whose name is scrawled above his eyebrow. 


Even with the hollowness of almost every other element of the movie, the action still kicks enough ass that emptiness doesn’t much matter. His historical epics are all well and good, but this type of down and dirty crime saga is easily my favorite Woo milieu. Silent Night opens and closes with epic high energy sequences that hit that sweet spot fans were hoping for. The pace and tempo do flag in between as Brian marks off the days on his calendar and fills his time with so, so many training montages as he learns the fine art of revenge from YouTube clips. As one does in this day and age. There’s enough to keep viewers on board, but just barely at times.


[Related Reading: 'Suicide Squad' Movie Review]

sad parents

As often happens with movies that hinge on a specific narrative gimmick, the “silence” of Silent Night is a hit and miss proposition. Kinnaman sells his part well, turning in a raw, visceral performance of grief and rage. And with his injury, we witness his frustration with his inability to communicate and articulate his feelings build and bubble over. Sandino Moreno unfortunately has very little to do and Saya mostly disappears after act one, so there’s usually no one around to talk to anyway. 


The script uses touches like newspaper headlines to impart information, and we know Brian is going to kill all the baddies on Christmas Eve because he writes, “Kill Them All” on the calendar. Kid Cudi shows up as a sympathetic cop and we only learn his name because he hands someone a business card. Overall, the no-talking stunt doesn’t create a huge distraction, but there are instances where it’s a reach. You can only watch so many conversations shot from the other side of a window. 


[Related Reading: Find More Action Movie Reviews Here]

Joel Kinnaman and a car

Silent Night has significant flaws and will be of most interest to existing John Woo fans and those with an appreciation for low-budget straight-to-video-style action. (Even among the more positive reviews, it seems like I rate this higher than most, so make of that what you will.) Despite ups and downs, I had a total blast with this, and if nothing else, we get a shiny new John Woo movie in theaters. Merry Christmas to us all. [Grade: B+]

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