The good, the bad, and the gritty
It’s rare that an actor becomes an action star in his late 50s. Liam Neeson was hardly unknown, and he’s not among the tombstones yet, but he is getting pretty grey. To tell the truth, I was quite taken with Neeson’s latest non-stop action movie.
And if you’re rolling your eyes at that opening paragraph, it just goes to show you what a cottage industry Liam Neeson action movies have become. The references hidden in those three sentences alone have made nearly one-and-a-half billion dollars worldwide.
When making an action movie with Neeson, you have two options. Option one: stick to the formula. Neeson usually plays tough, flawed men exiled from their families. In “Run All Night,” Neeson’s Jimmy Conlon has a son who hasn’t talked to him in five years. His brother distrusts him. He doesn’t even know when his own mother goes into the hospital. An alcoholic hit man, Jimmy’s only kept around in his old age because he grew up with the gang’s boss, Sean (Ed Harris).
When Jimmy shows up to help his own son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), it’s not out of familial duty, it’s as a favor to Sean. Unfortunately, things go awry and Jimmy ends up killing Sean’s son Danny. Jimmy has to protect Mike and family from gangsters and corrupt cops as they “Run All Night.”
How much of his taste for these roles reflects Neeson’s loss of his own wife, Natasha Richardson, in a 2009 skiing accident may make for a fascinating biography one day. (Watch “The Grey” and try to separate the actor’s grief from his character’s.) There’s a reason he connects to these characters and plays them with such a protective and personal fervor.
Option two: undermine the formula. Neeson’s characters are often functional alcoholics. Make this one dysfunctional. Neeson’s characters usually want to live and fix things. Give this one a death wish and no hope. Neeson’s characters are usually charming. Make this one rude and despicable. Neeson’s characters are all expert fighters. In most other Neeson action movies, his size, reach, and how hard he can punch are on display. He fistfights with skill. Here, his only talent is taking punishment, getting beaten like a side of beef. These changes in the formula make the movie compelling.
“Run All Night” is a pretty great entry into this cottage industry. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s filmed almost entirely on location in New York at night. It breathes and oozes New York better than most films that take place there, even if it cheats the geography a little. There are well-shot chase scenes in cars, on foot, through burning apartments, and down the side of a building. There are fistfights and gunfights.
If there’s one problem, it’s that “Run All Night” keeps trying to follow option one and option two. While he’s on the run, Neeson is a dysfunctional drunk and a liar, one of his most challenging and unlikable characters in years. It’s also one of his best performances in these films. We root for him not because he charms us, but because we pity him. It’s a change-of-pace that makes familiar set pieces feel fresh. Yet, inevitably, we’ll see Super-Neeson at some point. Usually that’s a good thing, but when he shows up here it runs against the grain of the rest of the film.
While Neeson’s on the run, it’s captivating stuff. He plays desperate as well as anybody and here he gets to do it twice over -- desperate on the run and desperate to reconnect with his son.
So what does separate this from Neeson’s other action work? Firstly, the style. If you like gritty, this is Neeson’s grittiest. This is Neeson’s third film with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop”) and each time out, the pair find a new sense of narrative and style to inhabit. Secondly, Harris and Kinnaman are superb in this. Between the three leads, a great supporting turn by Genesis Rodriguez, and capable performances by Vincent D’Onofrio and Common, this is as good a cast as you’ll find in these films. They cover over any weak spots in the script and make the strongest moments shine. Harris and Neeson, in particular, get a trio of scenes that elevate the entire movie.
Two and a half stars. “Run All Night” feels like it’s poised to be something more, but in the end gives us exactly what we expect. That said, it does it very well. It’s in stiff competition with a lot of other R-rated action movies right now. If I had to choose one, it would still be “Chappie,” but that’s comparing apples to oranges. “Run All Night” doesn’t excel, but it doesn’t disappoint either.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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