Silent Night

Year: 2023
Production Co: A Better Tomorrow Films
Director: John Woo
Writer: Robert Archer Lynn
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudi

Years ago when he'd been a hot director for a number of years thanks to movies like Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Mission Impossible 2, John Woo made a 2003 mystery thriller starring Ben Affleck called Paycheck, one of those Philip K Dick stories Hollywood made a business model out of twisting into bland corporate accounting errors and one that seemed to end his run as a Hollywood fixture (years later he was quite up front about what crap it was and how his heart hadn't been in it).

He's been very quiet for over a decade now – the last film of his I saw was Red Cliff, a historical war drama shot in his native Hong Kong back in 2009 – so the only thing I can attribute the existence of this film to is a desire to stay relevant and remind the American studio system he exists. It's quite telling that the poster art advertises it as being from the producer of John Wick rather than the director of Face/Off.

Because despite a few narrative flourishes and a slightly grimy grindhouse aesthetic it's an action thriller that only somewhat works. We meet the hero, Brian (Joel Kinnaman) spattered with blood and running through the backstreets of his hometown, following an SUV whose occupants are in a gun battle with another vehicle.

When he catches up with them, whatever plan he had to exact whatever revenge he's planning goes awry when the gang leader gets the drop on him and shoots him in the throat.

The entire first half tells the story out of chronological order but eventually reveals the sequence of events that leaves him bleeding out in a back alley. He and his wife and son are playing on their front lawn one Christmas Eve when drug runners on the run from each other come roaring up the street, bullets flying and his son killed in the crossfire.

After Brian gives chase and ends up barely alive in hospital, he's haunted by the memory and the faces of the people who did it, and can't reconnect with his wife, having lost the power of speech from his injury and become consumed with vengeance. After he spends too many days drinking, obsessing over the identities of the perpetrators like a cop and crafting weapons, his wife leaves him.

The second half is structured like a fairly typical one man army crusade thriller, but the script at least makes some effort to depict Brian as a regular guy putting himself through harsh training, not a ready-made super soldier.

It'a all going to lead to a videogame-style rampage with boss levels of increasing ferocity and violence, and all the while a dogged detective (Kid Cudi) is closing in on the gang as well as getting wind of Brian's plan to remove them from the world more forcefully than jail.

Some of the action set pieces are satisfying, but in trying to make Brian more human and fallible (much more so than this same role would have been played by Sly or Arnie in the 80s) it makes them ironically less effective, and even though it spends much more plot on Brian training himself than a cool rock song montage, which should heighten his relatability, it just goes on for too long.

All in all, Woo apparently wanted to make a violent drama that looks like an exploitation film rather than a exploitation revenge drama (if that makes sense).

It also doesn't help the seriousness it feels like he was going for because despite his experience, Kinnaman doesn't have the chops to pull this off. In playing a character who can't speak, he blows his facial expressions and stance out way too much to try and convey grief, anger or determination and overeggs the pudding.

When you think about it later there is actually a clever use of the central motif of not being able to speak. Even where meaningful dialogue is spoken by other characters like the wife or detective it's incredibly sparse, as if the film is putting you inside his lived experience. It's just a shame nothing else really lives up to such a well-executed device.

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