The past year has been a bloody good one for action-movie diehards. Between Keanu Reeves dispatching hundreds of henchmen in John Wick: Chapter 4 and Chris Hemsworth taking out a literal army in Extraction 2, the big-screen escapism has been as over-the-top satisfying as the body count has been ridiculously high. But contemporary action cinema would be as harmless as a slap on Dwayne Johnson’s wrist were it not for the influence and legacy of John Woo.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Woo reinvented what action movies could look and feel like with his Hong Kong trilogy of triad flicks starring Chow Yun-fat: A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled. Steadily building upon one another in intensity and ambition, the crime films mixed heart-bursting melodrama with intricately designed set-pieces, all draped by an effortless atmosphere of sub-zero cool.
Take the first few minutes of 1992′s Hard Boiled, in which Chow is chasing two crooks through a tea house. Bullets tear the place up, bystanders go down every which way, it’s chaos. But then Chow’s hero cop, toothpick between his teeth, glides down a banister, targets his prey mid-leap and ensures the bad guys are all shot dead before sliding off the staircase. It is a moment of operatic bombast that Hollywood has been trying to emulate ever since, with the industry going so far as to recruit Woo himself. In the late nineties and early aughts, the Chinese director subverted American cinema from the inside out, even if his hits (Hard Target, Face/Off) were eventually balanced by his headscratchers (Mission: Impossible II, Windtalkers).
But now, two decades after his last American film – the unfortunately titled 2003 sci-fi thriller Paycheck, which seems like it was made for the, well, you know – Woo is finally back stateside. The only irony is that his first English-language film in ages features not much of the English language at all: Silent Night is a dialogue-free action film, its characters are either rendered mute by violence (as in the case of the hero played by Joel Kinnaman, who is shot in the throat early on) or too busy shooting/stabbing/driving over innocent victims to say much of anything.
“When I got the script and saw that there was no dialogue, I thought here’s a movie that will allow me to change my style, to make everything more realistic,” Woo said in an interview a few weeks before Silent Night’s Dec. 1 release. “I’m getting older, so I felt I should do something different.”
At 77 years old, Woo is a relative spring chicken compared to this fall’s other still-roaring lions of filmmaking (Michael Mann is out there at 80, Martin Scorsese at 81, Ridley Scott at 85). But then again, none of Woo’s contemporaries is dealing with just as much close-proximity hand-to-hand violence – bone-crunching, blood-spurting kind of stuff – as the Hong Kong icon is handling in Silent Night.
Following a father’s quest for vengeance after members of a drug cartel murder his young son during a drive-by shooting, Silent Night offered Woo the chance to try something new – this is a more gritty, street-level kind of violence – while remixing his own greatest hits. One third-act scene, for instance, finds Kinnaman fighting his way up a stairwell against dozens of thugs, the entire sequence captured by Woo in what’s designed to look like a single unbroken shot. While the “one-shot” action sequence is the new favourite trick of big-budget filmmakers (the technique reaches its apotheosis in Extraction 2′s 20-minute-long sequence), its origins actually lay in Hard Boiled, in which Woo delivered a three-minute-20-second-long shot of a shootout that remains an all-timer.
“I go by my own instinct, so when I showed up to the location for the stairwell scene in Silent Night, I saw the space was about four storeys high, and it felt to me like it was hell upside-down,” Woo recalls. “Joel’s character, he never gives up, so I said let’s do it where he starts from the bottom and doesn’t stop till the top, like he’s a fighter in hell. And the crew got excited and kept training, even though it was dangerous to work out.”
Still, Woo was careful to keep things far more grounded than usual. Silent Night is a film with lots of bodies, but few block-levelling explosions. And there are none of his trademark doves flying around, either. (Although a different kind of bird does make one appearance during a pivotal scene.)
“Because our hero here is not a superhero, just an ordinary man responsible for his family, I did try to make it more realistic than my usual action, which is pretty fancy and over the top,” Woo says. “I tried to make it real, with lots of emotion to make sure the audience feels the pain that the character feels.”
Like any Woo production, Silent Night balances the heat of its firepower with the beating of its heart, focusing as much on a father’s mourning as it does on brutal revenge. There are slow-motion flashbacks filled with suffering, and enough parental anguish to make the famously weepy opening of Face/Off (in which John Travolta’s character also loses his son to a villain’s bullet) look like a lighthearted comedy.
“The tragic story here about an innocent little kid being murdered, it was so sad. I have a family myself, so I related to the subject matter very strongly,” says Woo. “Today, there are films that are too extreme, way over the top. The big sci-fi films, the Marvel films. I think audiences are missing those old-school movies that are simple but exciting.”
While Woo hasn’t exactly been keeping a low profile in the decades between his Hollywood ventures – he headed back to China in the aughts to make the historical blockbusters Red Cliff and The Crossing before returning to his action-movie stomping grounds with the deliciously absurd 2017 Chinese/Japanese thriller Manhunt – Silent Night seems to be the first step in his journey back to American filmmaking. Up next, another new experiment for Woo: remaking his own movie, The Killer, for Universal Pictures.
“Originally I didn’t want to do it because I don’t want to repeat myself, but then the writer came up with some interesting ideas, and a new ending,” Woo says. “And in the meantime, they couldn’t find any director to take it on, so I had to jump in to do it. But it went pretty well, and it’s an exciting cast with Nathalie Emmanuel and Omar Sy.”
And though this new version takes place in Paris, it will truly and finally – Silent Night’s few grunts and murmurs notwithstanding – mark Woo’s return to English-language dialogue. The doves, though, will have to be a wait-and-see kind of thing.
Silent Night opens in theatres Dec. 1.