I don’t need to tell any of you that one of the all time great directors, John Woo, has returned to our screens. If you didn’t read it or hear it, you could probly sense it. It’s been six years since his last movie (MANHUNT, 2017) and twenty since his last American movie (PAYCHECK, 2003), so it’s an event. It’s also a Christmas-set action movie, which I always appreciate, and it has a gimmicky storytelling conceit (no dialogue) that makes it a fun formal challenge for the grandmaster.
It is not, however, a poetic story of brotherhood like A BETTER TOMORROW, BULLET IN THE HEAD or THE KILLER, nor an American genre pushed to gorgeous levels of absurdity like HARD TARGET, BLACKJACK or FACE/OFF. Instead it’s a skilled and slightly eccentric but not emotionally complex take on a standard vigilante revenge formula. And there’s another catch, which I will get to soon. We’ll just say it’s more of an interesting film that I’m excited to write about than a great John Woo film. But I got some entertainment from it.
It’s set in the fictional city of Las Palomas, which is in California according to Wikipedia, Texas according to the license plates, but filmed in Mexico City. (Took me a bit to catch the joke – paloma translates to dove or pigeon.) Joel Kinnaman (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO remake, ROBOCOP remake, RUN ALL NIGHT, SUICIDE SQUAD, THE SUICIDE SQUAD) stars as an ordinary husband and father – or at least he was until right before the movie starts with what may be cinema’s most visceral action sequence to ever begin with a hat tip to THE RED BALLOON (1956). We meet him on a sunny December 24th afternoon, wearing a Rudolph sweater and jingle bell, running through back alleys chasing two cars of machine-gun-toting Latino gangsters. He does some damage with a pipe, but gets shot in the throat.
That’s where the silence comes from. He wakes up in the hospital having lost his power of speech. But Woo and/or screenwriter Robert Archer Lynn (writer/director of several thrillers I hadn’t heard of, all released in 2007) are so dedicated to the gimmick that we don’t even see him (or anyone) talk in the opening or the flashbacks. The rules are we can hear voices over a radio, there can be an occasional under-the-breath “hi” or “hey,” and one guy gets a muffled “FUCK YOU!” through a gag, but nobody ever talks to each other. So I had no idea our protagonist’s name was “Brian Godluck” until the end, and I’m still getting used to it. I would’ve called him Jake Cringell or something.
We can soon piece together that he was chasing those guys after they had a gunfight past his house and one of their thousands of stray bullets killed his little son in the front yard. The necessities of non-verbal storytelling and/or poetic cinema lead to some odd choices from Brian’s wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno, MARIA FULL OF GRACE). I kinda think she should’ve removed the deflated soccer ball (also slain in the incident) from the lawn before bringing him home, and she really shouldn’t have left a newspaper article about the shooting on the table. What the fuck, lady.
Otherwise she’s one of the only reasonable people in the movie. As she tries to support him in his physical and psychological recovery, he refuses to let her in. This is, after all, the guy who left her holding their dead son in her hands so he could go fight some guys. Now he spends all his time in the garage, which has become the Sitting and Brooding Under a Beam of Light While Drinking a Glass of Whisky Room. He leaves the door open, but with his back to it, and the marriage has cooled so much she won’t come inside when she needs to ask him something, she just texts.
Like so many couples who lose a child, they split up. When Saya decides she has to leave Brian doesn’t go after her to try to work things out, he takes the opportunity to live out the ultimate divorced dude fantasy. If only my wife would leave me I’d have enough time to concentrate on my true passions: doing pull-ups and weightlifting in the garage, becoming a self-trained sharpshooting and precision driving expert, learning knife fighting from goons on Youtube, and planning and executing a one man war against cartoonishly evil Mexican tattoo enthusiasts.
What’s kind of cool about this gimmick combined with this topic is that you don’t always know where the training montage ends and the rest of the movie begins. They are one and the same. They are brothers. (None of the actual characters become brothers, so you gotta get that John Woo shit somewhere.)
Brian’s approach is brazen. He goes to the police station, walks right into a detective’s unoccupied office, takes pictures of all the gangster mugshots on his wall, and makes it his goal to murder them all on Christmas Eve. The leader and guy who shot him is named Playa (Harold Torres, SIN NOMBRE), recognizable by the thorn tattoos covering half of his face and bald head. Brian listens to the police radio, goes to the site of crimes to find his prey, surveils them, abducts a bagman (ex-boxer, current stuntman Vinny O’Brien) and forces him to fill out a detailed survey about Playa’s criminal operations. That was one of my favorite scenes because the guy finds himself tied up in what is clearly just some random dude’s garage, but with photos of his associates covering the wall, he sees the dude standing there silently, wearing a welding mask like some horror movie villain. A serious “oh shit, this guy is fuckin out of his mind, and I am completely screwed” moment.
I enjoyed Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi (X) as the police detective who gets wrapped up in the whole thing. Woo’s daughter Angeles, one of the stars of MANHUNT, also shows up as a less lucky cop.
The critic Siddhant Adlakha compared SILENT NIGHT to “a bad Punisher fan film.” The Punisher part is right, though it’s better made than a fan film. I personally like it way better than that popular Bootleg Universe short with Thomas Jane. It has the same bleak sadism and racial stereotyping but at least it has some flair. I don’t find any fault with the craft of the film, but I do have issues with its soul. It feels a little too close to that Punisher in the minds of the abusive cops and war criminals who wear his symbol. Which is to say that if you’re one of those people who gets mad whenever I respect the action genre enough to consider its politics worth discussing, you’ve been warned. That’s about to happen.
SILENT NIGHT joins RAMBO: LAST BLOOD, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO and PEPPERMINT in the category of modern American action movies depicting white Americans having their lives and families threatened by psychotic Mexican gangs. And like with all of those movies I feel a duty to both assess it on its own merits and acknowledge the context it was knowingly released into. The former is because I love action movies and the latter is because I’m not a shallow nitwit. Like the other ones, this was made and marketed at a time when a large chunk of our country are under the spell of an idiotic anti-immigrant movement that demonizes Mexicans and convinces people that the MS-13 gang is in their neighborhood and likely to murder them. My international readers don’t need to care about that but if you’re in America and you haven’t noticed it or connected it with the movies capitalizing on it, I don’t know what to tell you.
Woo did live in the U.S. for more than a decade, but he’s spent most of his life in Hong Kong, so I don’t expect him to look at it in the same way. Furthermore, I have the advantage of being able to watch my favorite Woo movies like HARD BOILED completely unbothered by what they may be saying about Hong Kong at that time. But with this one I don’t have that luxury. That’s the breaks.
SILENT NIGHT is set in a world where the meaning of life is to romp in slow motion with a small, giggling child, but modern living is taking that away from us. The first full sentences we hear in the movie are a talk radio interview discussing inflation, specifically being caused by stimulus checks, as Brian looks out the car window dismayed by the open drug dealing, litter, and worst of all, graffiti that says “FUCK THE POLICE.” Or at least that’s how I read his look in the moment, but in retrospect it probly wasn’t disgust, it was probly agreement. He’s pretty mad at them for not doing what he’s about to do.
Despite that fucking inflation we never see him have to work a job or anything to pay for bills, food, used cars, arsenals, etc. Let me know if it was indicated where he gets his money and I just missed it. I’m sure there were pieces of visual information that flew past me, but the gimmick of telling the story without anyone ever having a conversation does play to one of Woo’s strengths. The visuals do even more heavy lifting than usual and therefore it’s even more up to individual interpretation. And I like to read much of the movie not as another “I get to kill people” wish fulfillment fantasy, but a critique of this desire. Kinnaman certainly doesn’t play the character as reasonable. Check out the crazed look on his face when he sits inside his newly purchased revenge car (above).
There’s a scene where he’s in a department store parking lot and suddenly runs into some of the guys he wants to kill. It’s so weird and dreamlike I thought it was a hallucination at first. One second it’s these big scary guys staring him down, the next they’re on a playground surrounded by happy children. At first I thought they were selling drugs to tiny kids, but actually they’re passing out money, which seems to make Brian very angry, presumably because it will exacerbate inflation.
But he can’t get up the nerve to do anything and then one of the gangsters has a girlfriend who sneers at him and dumps her drink on him. That was a big moment in DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE, too. Is this some right wing grievance I wasn’t aware of? They’re not sending their best, they pour their beverages on us?
You may have noticed Brian had a Latina wife, which is Hollywood code for “this doesn’t count as racist.” But I don’t want to minimize her casting, because Moreno is excellent in the role, and the novelty of having to do it without words makes it seem less thankless than the standard Caring Wife Who Just Can’t Be a Part of This Any Longer. I love how Woo contrasts Brian’s way of grieving with Saya’s. My favorite shot of the movie follows a tear as it rolls down her face and drips off her chin, and it match cuts to a bullet casing hitting the ground at the gun range where Brian is taking murder lessons. Another great juxtaposition is when he gets a suiting up montage, putting on his dumbass leather trenchcoat, bullet proof vest, strapping on a big ass gun and knife and all this shit, and then he goes into his son’s untouched bedroom, where he’s surrounded by dozens of different symbols of innocence while looking like a school shooter or Punisher cosplayer, possibly even realizing what a stupid, pathetic place he’s come to in his life. Then on his way to the psychotic murder spree he swings by Saya’s new place for some brief estranged husband spying, and through the window sees her lovingly drawing a picture of their son. Creating instead of destroying.
I guess he can’t draw though so he’ll just have to end a bunch of lives.
Brian remembers his son by playing a music box that belonged to him. I found this a little amusing because it’s such an on-the-nose symbol and also what child in 2023 has a favorite music box? But it’s such classic John Woo corniness. The cool thing is that Brian leaves it on his dashboard during his homicidal rampage and it gets knocked around, starts sounding warped when it plays, merging with the score by Marco Beltrami (ironically the composer of SCREAM 2, in which a cue from Woo’s BROKEN ARROW became the theme for Dewey against his wishes) and symbolizing how he’s tainting the memory of his kid.
Whether or not you consider it racist, the use of generic Latino gangster stereotypes makes for much duller villains than the Woo standard. They don’t have layers or honor but also they’re just kinda boring. I did enjoy the odd casting of MMA fighter turned stuntman Yoko Hamamura as a guy named “Ruiz.” With the name tattooed on his face and everything. Playa finally becomes interesting in the last act when he’s in his lair with his girlfriend. They have a loft inside a Final Shootout Warehouse, with giant speakers and kaleidoscopic video projectors like a dance club, huge reflective orbs like Christmas ornaments suspended from the ceiling, and a round bed with zebra-striped comforter. He wears a Santa Claus jacket and shoots heroin or what have you into her arm, which seems like villainous behavior, except it’s consensual then they waltz together and look into each other’s eyes with love, not mania.
That’s a real Woo touch, and it made me realize if Playa was more of a Castor Troy villain throughout, or if he went the DEATH SENTENCE route of making the gang more ridiculous and less the specific current boogeyman of the Republican party, then I would’ve had an easier time relaxing and enjoying the cartoon dystopia of Las Palomas. But I’d still have some frustration with the movie because of the way it ends. (SPOILER COMING UP.)
One of the powers of movies is when we can see reflections of our humanity even in characters unlike us. Nobody’s watching THE KILLER approving of Chow Yun Fat’s Ah Jong working as an assassin, but we’re moved by his remorse over injuring Jennie, and the bond he creates with Detective Li. In movies of this type, revenge scenarios are often cathartic and satisfying even though most of us are sane and don’t actually think it’s something to consider in real life. I don’t need a revenge is bad moral here, but I also don’t want a revenge is a good faith effort one. SILENT NIGHT allows Brian to have the last word in the form of a letter to Saya – the only real communication we’ve seen from him other than brief texts and obsessive chicken scratch about his investigation. In his letter he laments the tragic events and says there’s nothing anyone can do about it all, “but I’m willing to die trying.” Obviously I know it’s not gonna be a movie about a guy responding to his son’s death by figuring out how to transform society so that we all take care of each other (and lower inflation). But to me it was a bummer to end on this claim that he’s just a starry eyed idealist doing his humble part to make the world a better place. As far as I could tell Saya didn’t look too horrified by that idea, either.
I guess I just prefer Woo movies where they’re looking toward that better tomorrow. Their world is always ugly but they’re genuinely seeking some kind of redemption or honor inside it, a dove in a bullet-ridden church. This guy’s claiming to, but he’s full of shit.
I always liked Kinnaman but I definitely think he deserves credit for a very dedicated performance here, not just in the non-verbal acting but throwing himself into the action scenes. It’s a raw and rough style of action for Woo, hard hitting though obviously not as voluminous as his Hong Kong classics, and also not exaggerated and graceful like his best American work. (In an interview with Collider he described it as “realistic” as opposed to his “fancy” or “romantic” action.) The stunt coordinator is Jeremy Marinas, whose many great achievements include doubling Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat: Legacy, playing “Justin Starr” on LXD: Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, doing mocap stunts for TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, fight choreographing and playing a villain in Scott Adkins’ CLOSE RANGE, doing pre-viz stunts for KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, and being fight coordinator for this year’s best film, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4. Unsurprisingly he did a good job.
I’m grateful to be back in the Woo Zone, but it’s a little dark in here. I hope to be back some day soon after somebody lights a bunch of candles.