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Silent Night review – John Woo’s US comeback is a minor exercise

<span>Photograph: Carlos Latapi/Lionsgate</span>
Photograph: Carlos Latapi/Lionsgate

It’s been 20 years since John Woo last made an American film – the muddled sci-fi thriller Paycheck – and while he’s been absent as a director, his influence has been ever present. Directors David Letich and Chad Stahelski, whose films Bullet Train and John Wick respectively owe a heavy debt to Woo’s sleek operatic style, even keep a picture of him in their joint office. So in what’s become a boom financial period for the action movie (the Wick movies have amassed over $1bn in total), it makes sense that Woo, commonly seen as one of the genre’s most integral forefathers, would return to reclaim his throne.

Related: The return of John Woo: ‘I still know what I’m doing’

His to-the-point revenge thriller Silent Night isn’t good enough for us to erupt into the applause Woo has so often deserved, but it’s also not bad enough for us to mourn the film-maker that he once was, a mostly competent exercise that serves less as a victory lap and more as a warm-up. The plot itself is one long warm-up for the lead known as Godlock (Joel Kinnaman), whose son is killed in a drive-by in the opening scene. Driven mad by a swirl of grief and anger, he trains to transform himself from milquetoast family man to ruthless killer, giving himself a year to plan his revenge on the men who destroyed his family.

It’s an overly familiar journey in a post-Taken world which itself only exists because of 1974’s Death Wish, fathers overcoming trauma by tracking down and violently punishing those responsible (what happens to grieving mothers is another bleaker story). Silent Night has more in common with the latter, taking place in an almost cartoonishly crime-ridden world leaving our hero with no choice but to turn vigilante. Its gimmick is teased by its double meaning title: not only does the film start and end at Christmastime but it’s also virtually dialogue-free, a challenge for Woo as a film-maker but also for us as an audience.

Kinnaman’s driven dad is rendered mute after being shot in the throat during the opening, and so his grief and determination must be conveyed by a limited selection of facial expressions – sad then angry then sad and angry. We’ve come not to expect much emotional depth from either Kinnaman as an actor or these films in general, with poor Oscar-winner Catalina Sandino Moreno saddled with playing Silent Wife. They’re structured like video games, racing from one end-of-level-boss to the next, and so a lack of dialogue and characterisation is not exactly a great loss but it does leave the film resting almost entirely on Woo’s shoulders, his aesthetic prowess needing to wow us enough to make all other markers meaningless. It’s a gambit that works for the most part but not quite enough as it should, Woo’s stylistic choices ranging from ingenious to ugly. His love of all-consuming melodrama only emerges in flashes here – blunt but brief, mercifully – and what’s strange about the structure is that it’s often more entertaining to watch the prep than the carnage that follows, an everyman training to be a killer allows for a more involving journey than usual.

Perhaps it’s also because we expect Woo to stage the finale so flawlessly that we’re a little sore that when it does come to the finish line, he doesn’t. There are standout moments – mostly involving a spiral staircase – but the murky storm of gunfire and screeching tires is at times surprisingly ineffective; scrappily choreographed and baseline proficient when it should be something far more special. Coming at the tail-end of a year that’s boasted eye-opening invention from sequels to John Wick and Mission: Impossible, Woo’s return feels that much harder to cheer for. He’s still got it but … is that enough?

  • Silent Night is now out in US cinemas and in the UK at a later date