The dialogue-free action movie "Silent Night" is a fascinating experiment — but a failed one.
As it turns out, modern action movies, though they can be ideal vessels for bombastic image-making, need words to convey humor and humanity, and not even one of our foremost action auteurs, John Woo, can make it work without those two elements.
"Silent Night" is Woo's much heralded return to Hollywood after two decades (his last American film was 2003's "Paycheck"). The Hong Kong filmmaker behind movies like "Face/Off" and "Mission: Impossible II" is the poet laureate of action movies.
One would think a stylist like Woo could make a dialogue-free project work, but not with the dog of a script he's been handed by screenwriter Robert Archer Lynn. The story is about a rabid right-wing "Death Wish"-style revenge fantasy trafficking in some of the most virulently dangerous conspiracy theories about life in an urban metropolis, where children are gunned down in their front yards by Mexican gangs on Christmas Eve. The violent ethnic stereotypes only get worse from there.
The opening "in media res" is promising, a slo-mo foot race that focuses on the jingle bell necklace and bloodied Christmas sweater worn by our anti-hero Brian Godlock (Joel Kinnaman).
Brian tracks down a pair of vehicles locked in a chaotic shootout racing through town (we don't know it yet, but it's the shootout that has killed his son in a drive-by). He faces off with the last-standing gunman, a heavily tatted gangster (Harold Torres), who shoots him in the throat, destroying his vocal cords. Therein lies the whole "silent" conceit, which carries through to every other character in the film, including Brian's wife, Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and "Las Palomas" gang force detective Vassell (Kid Cudi).
Speaking of Saya, it's 10 a.m., do you know where your husband is? She seems not to notice that Brian, grieving the loss of their son, is in the garage getting radicalized on YouTube, assembling an arsenal and training himself to become a vigilante.
It's a byproduct of living in the United States these days that it's just no fun at all to watch a white man with a vendetta against people of color suit up in a trench coat with his illegally purchased weapons and an array of explosives. It's a stomach-turning image and it should be. When Brian finishes his training and heads out to try his hand at being Batman against the "G17" gang, it's exhausting rather than exhilarating.
Woo still has his visual flair, and there are some striking images and even surrealist sequences as Brian storms the glass factory where the gang is holed up. But the film is tiresome, soundtracked only to grunts, gunshots and grinding techno music, without any punchlines to punctuate the tension. You realize that these quips and asides add breaths and beats to the rhythm, providing a release valve that never comes in "Silent Night," which pummels away without respite.
But more important, words add humanity to these characters. Everyone onscreen is reduced to stereotype and problematic tropes without being allowed to say anything. The sentimental memories and snarling villainy presented here do not adequately offer characterization.
Back in the silent era, Buster Keaton and his peers pulled off action filmmaking with humor and heart, but the failure of "Silent Night" proves that it's a much taller order when it comes to modern moviemaking.
1.5 stars out of 4
Rated: R for strong bloody violence, drug use and some language.
Where: In theaters Friday.