‘Silent Night’ Review: Joel Kinnaman in John Woo’s Gripping Hollywood Comeback
When it comes to action movies, dialogue is highly overrated. That’s one of the main takeaways from the new film about a father who goes into full vigilante mode to avenge the death of his young son at the hands of gang violence. Of course, it helps considerably when the film in question is directed by John Woo. Making a striking Hollywood comeback 20 years after the release of his last American film, 2003’s mediocre Paycheck, the veteran action director fully delivers the goods with Silent Night.
The title coyly refers both to the opening scene taking place on Christmas Eve and the film’s lack of virtually any dialogue, a bold choice that fully pays off. (As much as I adore the John Wick films, they’d lose a lot of their bloated running times if the villains would just stop talking.) We first see the protagonist, Brian, played by Joel Kinnaman, running frantically down back streets, a crazed expression on his face and wearing the sort of silly sweater that dads are forced to put on during the holidays. He eventually catches up with the cars filled with heavily armed gang members that he’s desperately chasing, only to be cornered by one of them and shot in the throat.
We eventually learn the reason for the frenzied chase – namely that he was enjoying a happy moment in his front yard with his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and young son when the latter was killed by stray gunfire as a result of a shootout between two speeding vehicles passing by. After his ill-fated attempt to catch his son’s killers, Brian wakes up in the hospital and eventually fully recovers but has lost the ability to speak. A sympathetic detective (Scott Mescudi, better known as Kid Cudi) gives him his card, but it’s already clear that justice is unlikely to be served.
Except, that is, by Brian, who, much to his wife’s dismay, slowly transforms himself from a loving family man into the sort of revenge-fixated obsessive who makes a note on his calendar to “Kill Them All.” Like a contemporary Travis Bickle, he begins a regimen of intense physical conditioning, learns knife-wielding skills from online videos (an advantage Travis didn’t have in 1976) and undergoes firearm training at a shooting range. He also acquires a vast arsenal and a police radio to monitor law enforcement activity, and surreptitiously photographs the extensive mug shots of gang members plastered on the wall of the local police station. After kidnapping one of them to procure vital information, Brian thoughtfully leaves the hog-tied thug at the detective’s doorstep like an early Christmas gift, compete with greeting card.
Needless to say, all the preparations culminate in a not-so-silent night of intense violence directed against the gang, especially their heavily tattooed leader Playa (Harold Torres, scarily menacing), who not surprisingly takes Brian’s efforts against him rather personally.
Action fans will appreciate Woo’s mastery, which is fully on display here in a series of car chases, shootouts and car chase/shootouts. Despite an obviously low budget, the kinetic sequences are superbly orchestrated and filmed, featuring the occasional doses of slow-motion that are the director’s trademark. (None of his signature white doves make appearances, but a bird does land on Brian’s hospital room window in meaningful fashion.)
The film’s highlight, however, is not one of many lavishly staged gun battles, but an intensely brutal, lengthy hand-to-hand combat between Brian and one of Playa’s minions that makes the classic fight scene in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain seem like a schoolyard tussle.
Even more impressive, however, are the filmmaker’s gorgeously fluid visual transitions from flashbacks depicting Brian’s former joyful life as a loving husband and father to his anguished post-tragedy existence. Such moments viscerally convey the feeling that the past was just a dream and the present a living nightmare.
It’s to Woo’s and screenwriter Robert Lynn’s credit, as well the fiercely commanding, intensely physical performance by Kinnaman, that the film’s lack of dialogue proves not a gimmick but an asset. Norma Desmond would surely have approved.
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