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“I Don’t Play by the Rules”: John Woo Returns to Hollywood With a Blood-Soaked Christmas Thriller

After 20 years away from American screens, the legendary action director is back with an unconventional revenge film: ‘Silent Night.’ “This is a story I had been looking for for a long time,” he tells The Ringer.

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It’s been 20 years since John Woo made a Hollywood movie, but in many ways, it’s like he never left. He’s widely considered one of the greatest action directors of all time, and his influence can be felt across the genre; the John Wick franchise, in particular, owes a great debt to the balletic “gun-fu” style the auteur pioneered in films like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled. As Quentin Tarantino once said of Woo: “Yeah, he can direct an action scene—and Michelangelo could paint a ceiling!”

Woo hasn’t exactly been idle over the past two decades, having directed several historical epics in mainland China while helping grow the country’s once-burgeoning film industry on the global stage. But now Woo has finally returned to Hollywood with the release of Silent Night, a project that is a fascinating departure from his earlier work. For one, Silent Night is Woo’s first American feature for an independent studio, Lionsgate, which offers the director more freedom—and limitations—than a major studio production. More interestingly, though, Silent Night is a movie without any conventional dialogue. A Christmas-themed thriller, Silent Night follows Brian Godluck (played by Joel Kinnaman), a blue-collar dad whose young son is tragically killed by a stray bullet between warring gangs. After chasing after the gangsters and getting shot in the throat—which is why the character never speaks—Godluck spends an entire year training to avenge his son’s death the following Christmas.

Silent Night’s dialogue-free gimmick not only puts a bigger burden on the actors to convey emotion with just their facial expressions, but also places greater emphasis on Woo’s direction to keep the audience engaged. Unsurprisingly, Woo hasn’t lost his fastball. While more grounded than many of his films from yesteryear, Silent Night lets the action speak for itself at every stage of Godluck’s blood-soaked journey. Whether staging a car chase, hand-to-hand combat, or a close-quarters stairwell shoot-out, Woo delivers one of the most absurdly entertaining Christmas action movies since Die Hard.

Suffice to say, having Woo back in Hollywood is the best stocking stuffer any action movie fanatic could ask for. As for Woo, who previously directed stateside hits like Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2, working on an American indie production was an invigorating experience in and of itself. “The schedule and the money are pretty tight, so it’s forcing me to make everything in a clever way,” Woo tells The Ringer. “It’s good for me.” Below, we discuss Woo’s return to Hollywood, the unique challenges of shooting Silent Night, and the state of action cinema today.

Silent Night is your first American feature in 20 years. What made this the right time—and the right project—for you to return to Hollywood?

Well, about 20 years ago, after I made my movie Paycheck, I felt like I couldn’t get better scripts anymore. I always wanted to make something smaller, but unfortunately, since I had been established as a big movie director, all the much smaller scripts—and better scripts—never came to me.

I was so frustrated, but in the meantime I had been asked by a Chinese producer to help with Chinese movies—to make some Chinese movies. I think it’s good to do, training some of the young people in China on how to make a Hollywood film. And then after 20 years, when I came back to Hollywood, I found the script for Silent Night. I was so excited—this is a story I had been looking for for a long time. The whole script had no dialogue, which really excited me. I felt it could be a great challenge for myself. It would allow me to use my special gifts for using visuals and sounds to tell the story. It allows the audience to put much more attention on the actor’s face to feel the character more.

A through line in many of your films is this spirit of chivalry, adversaries having respect and a kinship with each other. Silent Night is about a man so hell-bent on revenge that he lets his marriage fall apart in the process—tonally, it feels closer to something like Death Wish than a traditional John Woo movie. Did that affect how you approached the project?

No, I followed the story and the character. Of course, I’ve seen Death Wish a long, long time ago, but I didn’t get any influence from that. I still work with my instinct; I shot the movie with emotion. For this one, I tried to create a new kind of style. My usual style is pretty fancy and romantic, sometimes way over the top with the action. But seeing that the story was about a little kid being murdered by a gangster and the father had a great responsibility to take revenge, I had decided that the drama—all the action—I would try to make it more realistic.

Even the fight scenes, it was all natural and raw. I usually do one long take without any cuts to show all the action. I think it feels more realistic to the audience. When I’m shooting, I’m totally concentrated on the character and the story. For the main character, Godluck, he’s also like my usual heroes—he’s got a spirit of chivalry. He’s got enough courage to avenge such a big crime.

You’ve talked about your fondness for musicals many times over the years. Silent Night reminded me of a musical in some ways. All the fight choreography and movement in the scenes was really informed by the music, like a dance or a ballet.

When I was much younger, I was always using musical theory to shoot my action sequences. I feel like I’m dancing with the action. When I choreograph the action, there’s so much concern about the beauty of the body movements and the rhythm of the gunfire. That’s why I’ve let actors use two guns—the continual firing sounds like a drumbeat. Over time, when I’m shooting, I usually put on a headset and listen to music to create the action scenes.

Speaking of wielding two guns, I saw in another interview that Scott Mescudi [Kid Cudi] told you he wanted to do “John Woo action,” and for him that meant having his character use two guns in Silent Night. For you, what defines “John Woo action”?

I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. You tell me [laughs].

I don’t play by the rules; basically, I do everything by instinct. Somebody had called my action as having the beauty of violence, something like that. But I don’t know how to describe that kind of action—I just love to make everything look beautiful. Even if it’s a tragic story, I still want to make the tragedy feel more romantic.

Early in my career, I got so much influence from French movies, especially the French New Wave. If you’ve seen it, there’s a movie from the ’60s called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; the director was Jacques Demy. The movie was so romantic, and all the dialogue in it was singing, pretty much like a modern opera. It was so beautiful, and that movie made me learn about romanticism. So when I’m making any movie, I feel like I’m making a French film.

You mentioned directing by instinct—in Hard Boiled, you shot the opening sequence in the teahouse before the story or script was finished. With Silent Night, where there is no dialogue, were you given the creative freedom to shoot and choreograph on instinct? Were there any challenges?

Yeah, I’m so glad I had a lot of creative freedom. When I was shooting Silent Night, it made me feel like I was back working in Hong Kong with a much smaller team. There are no producers on the set, nobody interferes from the studio. I just feel free to do it. For a studio movie, you could have a lot more time to shoot—a lot more coverage, shots, different angles. But for an independent film, every shot you make, every single frame, it’s got to be exactly what you want and what you feel. It’s good training for me.

There was a scene where Godluck—Joel Kinnaman—walks into his son’s room and sees all the toys. In the script, there was a flashback to the father and son playing with toys, and there were so many cuts. We felt that it was so boring, and we didn’t have enough time to shoot everything. We only had half a day. All of a sudden, Joel came up to me and said, “John, maybe I return to the bed to sleep next to my son?” I thought it was a good idea, so I came up with shooting it all in one shot, one long take. So I ask him to lie down on the bed, and the camera pushes into him. There’s nothing on the other side of the bed, and then when we get closer, we put the little kid beside him. We pull back, and he’s next to the boy, and then we get the camera pushing in again and the boy disappears, and Godluck wakes up so disappointed. Everybody [on set] was so excited—I had never done this before, to do everything all in one shot with so much meaning. Even the cameraman was moved by this shot.

That’s the good thing about independent movies: You have to do something very precise and think very quickly. You are completely alone; nobody can help you. You have to accept it. I actually really enjoy independent movies now.

With action movies, there was a period at the start of the 21st century where the shaky-cam style with fast cuts became trendy. How do you feel about the state of action cinema today?

An action movie that has fast cuts, shaky camera—I hate it. Whenever I watched those kinds of movies on DVD, I would throw them away. Just let the camera tell the real story without doing crazy things. When you’re shaking the camera or doing fast cuts, it looks like cheating. It means the actor cannot fight, so you have to use that technique. I really didn’t like it.

I think with those movies, the audience became tired. Every movie was doing the same thing. I never do that. I like to make a movie that’s more old-fashioned. A movie should have a good story, good characters, and the camera is used to show good quality for everything.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.