Close this search box.

Silent Night: John Woo Movie Review

Joel Kinnaman holds a rifle in the John Woo movie Silent Night

Silent Night sees John Woo return to form by combining gorgeously brutal action with laughably overbearing drama, making it fun for the right and wrong reasons.

Director John Woo returns to American cinema with Silent Night, a new Christmas-themed work of gruesome violence. And yes, I have been constantly mixing it up with last year’s Violent Night, another Christmas bloodbath. And I sincerely hope I’m not the only one. Joel Kinnaman – whose last name always makes me hungry for baked goods – plays Brian Godluck, a broken man whose young son is shot and killed in the crossfire of a gang fight that drives past his suburban home. You know, as all gang fights do. He’s consumed by grief, even driving away his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno), but remains determined to train himself to take on and kill every gang member involved in the tragedy.

John Woo has a style that’s very easy to identify. His homages to the wuxia genre, heavy use of slow motion, creative brutality, and heightened melodrama have made for some very memorable films … for better and for worse. And if you think any of that has changed at all since his rise to prominence back in the day, Silent Night is here to literally shoot that notion down. Silent Night offers plenty of high-octane, visceral, gorgeously filmed fight sequences that are exactly what most moviegoers will be paying to see, and I don’t think anyone will be let down by those … as long as they’re fine with the drawn-out pretentiousness that comes along with them.

Given the premise of a father’s seven-year-old child being brutally killed, you would expect Silent Night to be a very serious movie. And you’d be correct … It’s very, very, very serious. To a point where it’s impossible to take seriously. The first half hour of this movie is basically watching Godluck process and mourn the death of his son. Not through creative or nuanced portrayals of grief, but by him walking into his yard, remembering the preciousness of his son, and looking miserable in the present. Then he walks into his house, remembers the preciousness of his son, and looks miserable in the present. Then he walks into his son’s bedroom, remembers the preciousness of his son, looks miserable, lays in his bed, remembers his son, looks miserable, plays music from his son’s favorite toy what feels like fifty times, and lather, lather, lather …

All of this is set to protracted slow motion, overbearingly sad music, and Kinnaman’s performance making the character look like he’s just now realizing his kid is gone. And it’s so overblown, protracted, and repetitive that it actually loops around to being kind of funny. I was snickering in the audience and internally yelling at this guy to just get over it already. I was thinking that someone should get over the death of his child … John Woo’s making me look like a sociopath! I also feel bad because I’ve stated before that I want more films to take themselves seriously and trust the weight of their own stories, and I encourage even these big action films to try and be about something meaningful. But this is the biggest overcorrection I can imagine.

Silent Night, from director John Woo (Lionsgate)

The rest of the film is tainted by the earlier melodrama, because later emotional moments that would otherwise work fine are now just extra heaps on a pile that’s already gotten too big. There’s one scene where Godluck sees a random boy in a store, and his reaction is so silly that I had to actively stop myself from laughing out loud. I’m honestly wondering if this was all supposed to be one big joke, especially because certain moments definitely seem like they should be funny. The imagery during the opening credits feels very tongue-and-cheek, for instance. At a later point, Godluck goes to his calendar and literally writes “KILL THEM ALL” on the December 24th square … Now that’s sticking to a schedule.

But this is mainly just the first half hour. I’m harping on it so much because its effects really do bleed into the rest of the movie, but there’s more going on in Silent Night. When the film just buckles down, tells its story, and gets to the action, it’s very good. When Kinnaman’s sadness isn’t being milked for all it’s worth and his physicality can just speak for itself, he works really well as the silent, hardened action anti-hero. His character’s throat is shot early in the film, removing his ability to speak and forcing him to emote solely through his expressions. He’s infinitely watchable, skilled enough to get satisfying kills yet just vulnerable enough to put us on edge when he takes damage.

Silent Night boasts some of the best action of the year, and I’m only refraining from saying “the best” because … c’mon, how is it supposed to compete with Across the Spider-Verse, John Wick 4, and Mission: Impossible 7? Still, every up-close fight is framed with such precise frenetic energy that makes you feel like you’re right there in the mayhem without disorienting you, and the grander set pieces are as fun as they are impressive. Not to mention so bloody and brutal that they make Violent Night’s violence look quaint. During the third act, which is essentially one action set piece after another, Woo’s gimmicks like the slow-mo are scaled back considerably, making them far more welcomed when they do show up.

I also appreciate how much of Silent Night’s story is told visually. The imagery is often unintentionally (I think) silly, but you understand pretty much everything that’s going on with very little dialogue for a vast majority of the film. Not that this is a particularly deep story anyway, but I’ll always give credit to Woo for at least trying to take advantage of the visual medium as much as he can. It often doesn’t work the way I thinkhe wants it to, but the effort is there and I always appreciate that. I’m only bummed that for a film called Silent Night that takes place on Christmas, there’s not that much in terms of Christmas atmosphere. If you watched the last half hour on its own, you wouldn’t even guess it’s a Christmas movie. I’m not faulting the film too much for that, but it’s worth noting if that’s part of the allure for you.

Is Silent Night an overall good film from start to finish? I can’t quite say that. Did I still have a good time with it? Oh my goodness, yes. Not only do the legitimately good elements make it worth watching on their own, but even the parts that don’t work for me are so outlandish and mistakenly confident that they’re entertaining for wholly different reasons. Even if you laugh at a film instead of with it, it’s still laughter. But I don’t know if others will see it that way. Unless you love John Woo’s style already, warts and all, you may be fed up with how indulgent he gets before giving you the action you’re looking for. But if you just wait it out, I think it may win you over and give you the plate of unhealthy Christmas candy you want.

Silent Night is now available to watch in US theaters. In the UK, the film will be released on Sky Cinema on December 23, 2023.

Silent Night: Trailer (Lionsgate)
Thank you for reading us! If you’d like to help us continue to bring you our coverage of films and TV and keep the site completely free for everyone, please consider a donation.