The opening minutes of Silent Night promise something fun. There’s Joel Kinnaman, dressed in a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sweater, sprinting in super-slow-motion through his neighborhood’s back alleys. There are the warring Mexican gang members he’s chasing, spraying bullets at each other as they rampage through residential streets. There’s the glittery soundtrack of a music box filtering out the distant sirens and tire-screeching. And then there’s a red balloon, floating above the chaos, doing its best Fritz Lang impression. It’s gloriously, ludicrously over-the-top.

But who are we kidding? Nobody does melodrama better than John Woo, returning to Hollywood after a 20-year hiatus (his last American movie was 2003’s Paycheck) to deliver some of his signature thrills and recapture the theatrical style that made him one of the world’s most influential directors. A few decades ago, thanks in part to Hard Boiled, The Killer, and his mainstream effort Face/Off, the Hong Kong legend established a hard-to-replicate gun-fu template, complementing balletic action with metaphorical, white-dove flourishes. Now he’s back, fighting to distinguish himself from the acolytes. 

That’s hard to do with a low-budget revenge thriller, a subgenre Taken reinvigorated 15 years ago, John Wick commercialized into a lucrative four-movie, spin-off-spewing mega-franchise, and countless others have now straight-up copied to varying degrees. It’s also hard to do with a Robert Archer Lynn script that doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. Yes, Silent Night takes its title seriously. By the end of that prologue, Brian Godluck (Kinnaman) has run down the gang members whose drive-by stray bullets tragically killed his son. But his efforts go to waste––the gang’s leader, Playa (Harold Torres), shoots him in the vocal cords, rendering him forever speechless. It’s a Christmas Eve that Brian would like to forget, and one he’ll attempt to avenge in a predictable, uninspired story of redemption. 

It’s not as though this movie really needs dialogue. Woo’s setpieces and roving camera speak for themselves––anything extra just adds cheese. And Kinnaman is a competent-enough actor. He’s got an edge and a look that makes him a natural fit to play a heartbroken father and husband who can express grief, channeling it into rage on a dime. It’s not long before Brian’s initial drunken stupor––and his refusal to answer texts––pushes his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) out of the house. As a way to fill out the movie’s 103-minute runtime, Brian eventually pivots into payback mode through a long training montage in which sit-ups and pull-ups beget artillery training and vehicle reinforcements. It’s a stale slog you’ve already seen too many times.

You can get away with this kind of quiet experiment with Liam Neeson or Keanu Reeves, whose dramatic capabilities and avenging angels mask the awkwardness of supporting characters who, despite their perfectly functional voice boxes, refuse to talk. But after a while, without any lines for Kinnaman to chew on, the seams start to fray. There’s only so many intense glares and nods to go around. It would seem that everyone––even the police investigator (Scott Mescudi) who gives Brian his card––has gone mute at the same time Brian has. What might have been a feature in a desolate, woodsy environment mostly becomes a gimmick in its populated urban setting. 

Woo gets around some of these issues with a radio DJ describing the day of the week, or floating text-message bubbles Brian reads and sends. Mostly, he crams the movie’s second half with a hailstorm of bullets that drown out any need to talk. The violence is manic and comical enough so you don’t question the fact that Brian is keen on mowing down his town’s entire Latino population to get his hands on Playa. In other words, it relies on a handful of shocks––a forklift to the face, a bloody head’s slow slide down the windshield––to punctuate his otherwise hellbent mission. The highlight is a hand-to-hand combat scene in the kitchen that breaks up the monotony of Brian’s bodily transformation and shows what he’s been building towards. 

Otherwise, there’s not much extraneous material that illuminates Brian beyond the tragedy he’s perilously hoping to process and overcome. Woo has a killer and supplies him with a bunch of people to kill. There are merits to being lean, but there still has to be something to chew on. At the very least, Woo shoots these nighttime encounters with a formal elegance that filmmakers like Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have championed over the last decade. The action duo has taken Woo’s baton, relying on real martial-arts actors to substitute the rapid cutting and editing around untrained stars. They’ve built an entire action-design temple to proliferate this uncluttered, more dynamic vision.

Still, as much as Woo likes incorporating old techniques that have become contemporary ones, he just as haphazardly mimics his disciples. Near the end of his quest, Brian climbs an ill-defined staircase, shooting up gangsters that keep popping out at him on every level. Woo stages the video-game sequence in one computer-stitched continuous shot, but it’s nothing more than a technical, generically produced Atomic Blonde exercise. Woo has few other slow-motion flourishes up his sleeve that attempt to turn machine-gun poses into back-lit, iconographic artwork. It just all feels like a classic rock band reunion tour, playing the hits without the same energy and verve of decades past. 

Silent Night could have been more than a straight revenge drama. It’s practically begging to incorporate its holiday into some creative, yuletide violence. And the anti-cop graffiti that offends Brian on his way home from the hospital is just asking for more engagement, especially since local law enforcement has done little to prevent gang wars from infecting the community. Instead, like its main character, this movie seems hesitant to say anything. It sacrifices exhilaration and settles for emptiness.

Silent Night opens in theaters on Friday, December 1.

Grade: D+

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