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‘Silent Night’ review: John Woo’s comeback needs more juice

The death of a child haunts John Woo’s most lasting Hollywood achievement, 1997’s “Face/Off,” the one he should be remembered for. (Don’t fight me on this.) It’s a mark of the Hong Kong action master’s genius that he is able to convey the whole sad story of Michael Archer, killed by a bullet meant for his dad, in the space of a wordless two-and-a-half-minute opening sequence. Woo then sends the movie through all the face-swapping delirium it is famous for, though not without pit stops in grief, compassion, forgiveness and even adoption, a final stroke that makes you realize you’re watching some kind of demented classic.

“Silent Night,” the director’s first American film in 20 years, will put you in mind of much of the above, but in ways that will make you miss the Woo of yore — or maybe just the 1990s, when such nutty concepts could breathe more freely. Again, a child goes down, a random victim of gang violence. Woo hammers the loss with a deliberateness that feels desperate: oppressive blue gloom, a slumping Christmas tree with unopened presents, a twinkly musical box that evokes sadness.

Adding to the sentimentality, no one speaks throughout the entire movie, a decision partly motivated by a grievous throat wound suffered by the child’s father, Brian (an exhausted-looking Joel Kinnaman), but increasingly more of a gimmick. Strenuously, “Silent Night” is meant to announce the return of a visual master, but dialogue was never Woo’s problem. His best films, like the action landmarks “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled,” alternate gun-fu with sincere, confessional discussions edging on brotherly love.

The new movie feels too simple for him, a thriller with only vengeance on its brain. Grimly plotted by screenwriter Robert Archer Lynn, “Silent Night” drains the hope from Brian’s marriage, prematurely ejecting his neglected wife, Saya (a wasted Catalina Sandino Moreno of “Maria Full of Grace”), from the story. Meanwhile, after a long period of heavy drinking, Brian is reborn with a dark purpose — on Easter weekend, no less — as he heads to his garage and begins to sculpt himself, Travis Bickle-style, for a mission of retribution. “Kill Them All,” he scrawls on one of those extra-large calendars you see only in movies, marking the days to the awful anniversary with a big fat “X.”

Joel Kinnaman and Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Silent Night.”

(Carlos Latapi / Lionsgate)

Woo’s filmmaking has never felt this conservative. You can see it in the embrace of Lynn’s reactionary “Death Wish”-style narrative, but also in Brian’s Eastwoodian scowls at his trash-strewn block, representative of an America that’s clearly gone to seed. (The production was filmed in parts of Mexico City that are meant to code as East Los Angeles.) Regrettably, the director’s conception of villainy is also stuck in the ’90s: Drug dealers still dwell in arty lofts, listen to terrible dance music and sport bald heads and scary tattoos. The big bad here is called Playa (Harold Torres) and you wish the casting department had a little more freedom to spread the menace around.

Too late for it to make much of a difference, an especially thoughtful detective (Kid Cudi) joins the hunt for Brian’s target, but his presence grows redundant in a movie that doesn’t want to open its mouth. Anyway, Kill Them All Day is finally here, so who needs him? “Silent Night” explodes into the kind of hard-R violence we’ve been waiting for: exploding heads, the constant rattle of semiautomatic weaponry, car chases down tight alleyways, bodies smashed against walls.

It must be said that Woo remains a visionary when it comes to this. One moment is so rapturously stupid, it had me shaking in my seat with laughter: the corpse of a criminal colleague kicked (in slo-mo, no less) from the passenger seat onto the pavement, no longer of any use in the firefight. These sequences, somewhat underlighted by “Whiplash” cinematographer Sharone Meir, are redeemed by Woo’s creativity. Still, no doves take flight, literally or in our hearts. Woo is capable of bigger and better. Next time, let’s hope the director learns something from Michael Bay’s recent “Ambulance” — a manic, hyperventilating return to form — and gathers actors willing to be open-throated about the joys of unfettered mayhem.

‘Silent Night’

Rating: R, for strong bloody violence, drug use and some language

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Now in wide release


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