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Movie review: 'Silent Night' thrills with tragic action

Joel Kinnaman stars in "Silent Night." Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
1 of 6 | Joel Kinnaman stars in "Silent Night." Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- John Woo is an action artist and Silent Night, in theaters Friday, is his latest masterpiece. With trademark style and depth, Silent Night is Woo's best film since Face/Off.

Brian (Joel Kinnaman) and Saya Godlock's (Catalina Sandina Moreno) son, Taylor, was killed in the crossfire of a gang war. Brian also lost his voice when he was shot in the throat, but he at least survived.

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After release from the hospital, Brian marks his calendar for Dec. 24, 2022, to kill all the gang members responsible for Taylor's death. Brian spends May to December training and planning his mission -- in silence, with no dialogue.

Though Brian can't talk, everyone else can, so Woo and screenwriter Robert Archer Lynn use artful techniques to omit dialogue for the audience's benefit. Silent Night finds clever ways to circumvent any situation in which another character would logically speak to Brian.

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For example, the camera goes outside the hospital window so the nurses in Brian's room are unheard. Brian and Saya do send text messages to each other, but that's fair because people do communicate that way.

The film only uses texting a few times. Silent Night really is truly 99% dialogue-free.

Woo always dealt in tragedy with movies like The Killer, Bullet in the Head and Windtalkers, and Silent Night continues his tragic action tradition. No matter how satisfying Brian's revenge, at the end of the movie Taylor will still be gone.

So Silent Night always reminds the viewer about Taylor, but not in a depressing way that ruins the excitement. It's powerfully emotional whenever Brian remembers Taylor. The lighting even changes to reflect warmer and colder moods.

Saya weeps over Brian's obsession. There is still love demonstrated between them, but it becomes untenable.

So think about the cost of the action plot. Brian still could have a loving marriage if they could find a way to cope with the tragedy. That he chooses violence may be more entertaining than a drama about grief, but it's not an ideal sacrifice.

The action delivers explosive and visceral revenge, but Woo doesn't rely on his past. He invents new action.

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There are no doves, Woo's traditional symbol of peace amid carnage, although there is one alternate bird.

Brian also uses one gun at a time, unlike many of Woo's heroes. Only a detective (Scott Mescudi) and the villain briefly shoot double guns like Woo's classics, in a few instances to pay homage to Woo.

Brian dons a leather jacket in cool slow motion. He's earned it, but since he's not a trained assassin or grizzled police officer, he develops his own moves.

Even after decades in the business, Woo still finds interesting ways to reveal kills. After one gangster hangs on to the roof of Brian's car, Woo reveals Brian got him by letting blood trickle down the windshield, before the body slips down.

Woo has done long uncut takes of action before, but Silent Night increases the difficulty by setting the take on a stairwell traversing many flights up.

Music by Marco Beltrami drives both the intensity of the action and the melancholy of the tragedy. Yet Woo is not afraid to let some action scenes play out with only the sounds of vehicular revving and crashing.

After a decade in Hollywood, Woo returned to Hong Kong to make Chinese movies again. Nearly 20 years later, Woo is back and hasn't lost his touch.

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Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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