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All Is Not Calm: John Woo on Silent Night

In 1986, then-journeyman Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo broke through in a big way with “A Better Tomorrow,” a hyper-kinetic crime drama that received international acclaim for its combination of soulful storytelling, exquisitely choreographed action sequences that marvelously fused together the brutal and the balletic, and the incomparable presence of Chow Yun-Fat in his star-making role. Over the next few years, he built on the reputation that he developed with that film with a string of films that displayed his ambition, execution and lasting impact: “A Better Tomorrow II” (1987), “The Killer” (1989), his masterpiece “Bullet in the Head” (1990) and the still jaw-dropping “Hard Boiled” (1992). After a decade in Hollywood that culminated with 2003’s “Paycheck,” Woo left the U.S. to return home. While he would do a handful of films since then, most notably the two-part historical epic “Red Cliff” (2008), he has been away from the big screen for far too long—his last film, “Manhunt,” came out in 2017. At the same time, his influence has continued to cast a long shadow over the genre that he would become synonymous with films like the “John Wick” series often paying explicit homage to his legacy.

Finally, Woo has returned to the States with the high-concept holiday bloodbath “Silent Night.” After his young son is caught in the crossfire between two opposing gangs and shot dead on Christmas Eve, a grieving father (Joel Kinnaman) tracks down those responsible. The twist here is that the entire film is conveyed without a single line of conventional dialogue being uttered throughout the film (during that same fateful Christmas Eve, the Kinnaman character is shot in the throat, rendering himself unable to speak), although the film itself is anything but a silent movie. Woo still knows how to put an action scene together, and one sequence in particular, a one-shot extended bit in which our hero guns his way up a stairwell to confront the big bad guy, is a genuine thrill to watch.

Woo sat down to about “Silent Night,” his return to Hollywood after all these years, his thoughts on current action cinema and his next project, his long-planned remake of his own classic “The Killer,” which is currently in production for Peacock.

What was it about the screenplay for “Silent Night” that got you excited to do it? Was it primarily the idea of doing a film that told its story without any dialogue?

I am always looking for something different. All I was getting offered was action, action, action, and I was getting tired. I wanted to make a change and so when I came back four years ago and got the screenplay for “Silent Night,” I was so excited about it. Even though it was an independent film, I really loved the script, and I thought the idea of doing something with no dialogue would be a great challenge for myself. It also gave me a chance to change my own style. My kind of movie would always have a lot of action and romance and fantasy but for this one, I wanted it to be more realistic so that the character would be more believable. By not having dialogue, it allowed me to use my gift for using visuals and sound to tell a story. I think it was a very good experiment for myself.

In a number of your films, you have included extended dialogue-free sequences of so-called “pure cinema,” but “Silent Night” extends that notion for the entire running time. Did the no-dialogue concept require you to approach the project in a different manner than you might have if it had been done in a more conventional manner?

The whole story was a human drama, so it led me to try to make the movie in a more dramatic manner than most action movies. This meant that I had to change my style because the story was about a young kid being murdered, which is the kind of thing that could happen to any family. I couldn’t make fun of that, so it made me change my usual style and try to make a movie that was more realistic. Even in the fight scenes, I wasn’t using any fast cuts so that the action would look more like real fights—I was using long takes to capture the action and make it look more powerful and give it more of an impact. I like the old-fashioned ways over the new techniques. A lot of the Hollywood movies rely on CGI and AI, but I like the real thing. Even the drama has real feeling in it. I like a good action film but an action film with a real human story.

Presumably the casting for the film must have been a challenge as well, in that you had to find actors who were capable of conveying the story and the emotions without being able to rely on dialogue to help them. How did you come to casting Joel Kinnaman in the central role of the avenging father?

I was so glad to have Joel Kinnaman. He doesn’t look like a superhero. He looks like a real man, a man who comes from your own neighborhood. He is a common person, but he is a man with such love for his family that he becomes a real hero. By his performance, the audience will be able to relate to the character and to him. He was a very good choice and I feel very lucky to have worked with him. In the meantime, he is a real actor and had so many good ideas that we were sometimes able to use in the film. He also did all of his own stunts—maybe 98% of them by himself. He was unlike the people I usually have in my movies, who are more like superhero types.

Even though this is your first feature in a while, your earlier work is still revered by fans and indeed, many of the action films that have come out in the last two decades have owed a considerable debt to your work. What are your thoughts on the action genre in its current form and what are the films that have particularly impressed you?

To be honest, I haven’t seen much of them. I like to watch old-time movies. I never got too interested in things like the Marvel films and comic book movies—they have been huge successes, but they have never really interested me. I always like to stay home and watch old movies like “The Seven Samurai” and Stanley Kubrick’s films and “Lawrence of Arabia” and old French movies. I apologize but I just haven’t watched many recent action movies. I have seen one or two of the “John Wick” movies and those are very interesting, and I liked them.

You are also currently working on directing the long-long-gestating American remake of your 1989 hit “The Killer” for Peacock. What can you say about that project and the notion of revisiting your own work?

I am shooting it now in Paris, but we had to stop for a while because of the strike. We will be going back to Paris in January to finish the rest of the scenes. The reason I wanted to do it was because the writer came up with the idea of making the killer a woman. This interested me because it made it into a very different thing with that new element. It will also have a different ending—this time, it will be a happy ending. In the beginning, I just wanted to produce it but since we couldn’t find another director to do the job, I took over. Actually, it feels like a different movie—it doesn’t look like a remake. I also like that it is set in Paris—I have been so influenced by French movies that it was a great opportunity to pay homage to old-time French films. I had a great time shooting that.

I remember reading that even as far back as the early ‘90s, a remake had been planned with Richard Gere and Denzel Washington in the lead roles.

I read about that. Unfortunately, we never got the script right. Some writer tried very hard to do the rewrite but could not attract a star to do it. It took a long time—more than 20 years—and in the end, they gave it back to us. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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