We live in a post-Taken world. It seems Ike every year we get a new entry in the “Liam Neeson violently dispatches hordes of villains for a good cause, usually fueled by vengeance” genre. It’s a formula that generally works, and at a time where all of our action heroes are entering their sixties and desperately trying to hold on to their youth, (and failing miserably, for the most part. Ahem, Mr. Willis) it’s oddly refreshing to see one of our finest dramatic actors make the jump to action successfully. And it’s those dramatic skills that make it feel cheap to call the films of Neeson’s rebirth formulaic. The latter entries of the Taken trilogy notwithstanding, Liam Neeson’s new look has more to it than it gets credit for.
A lot of this has to do with Neeson’s collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra (director of the under appreciated Orphan and House of Wax). Run All Night marks their third partnering, the first being Unknown and the second, Non-Stop. The reason why their partnership is so interesting is that, unlike many films of this genre, Collet-Serra’s work offers an opportunity for Liam Neeson to do what a lot of other actions heroes can’t: act.
In the Taken trilogy, Neeson is an unstoppable killing machine, but his work with Collet-Serra offers a little more nuance: In Unknown he’s an amnesiac trying to figure out his own identity; In Non-stop, he’s an Air Marshal who’s hit some hard times, trying to prove his innocence; and in Run All Night he’s a former hit man whose career path has ruined his life, estranged him from his family, and left him an alcoholic shell of a man who has to drunkenly play Santa at his friends’ holiday party just to make ends meet. I love Jason Statham, but I don’t see him being capable of portraying such a character in a sympathetic way (although I’d watch any attempt he makes).
For what is, at its core, just a pulpy actioner, Neeson offers a heartbreaking performance that would probably be “better than” this movie if it weren’t surrounded by other equally solid performances. Ed Harris is deliciously conflicted as the villain who, despite his friendship with our protagonist, is put in a situation where he simply must be villainous. Vincent D’Onofrio elevates the “reluctantly helpful cop” to something more than just filler, and Joel Kinnaman, as Neeson’s son and Harris’ target, brings a grimy charm that is befitting of a young man trying to give his family the life his father couldn’t give him. By populating his story with quality actors, Collet-Serra gets a lot of mileage out of a pretty standard script.
Even so, the story is solid: Guy 1 wants to kill guy 2. Guy 2’s dad (Neeson) kills Guy 1. Guy 1’s dad (Harris) is pissed and wants revenge. Now everyone fight! The stage is set for a high body count, a few car chases, and some gunplay. There are enough balls in the air to give the proceedings a ticking time bomb pace, and the direction is clean and slick (none of that unwatchably choppy Bourne-fighting). There are flaws in regards to the suspension of disbelief, but I think that comes with the territory. Plus, Common is in it, and he’s the best.
Overall, I think you know what you’re getting into when you see a movie like this, and if it’s your flavor, I’m proud to report that Run All Night is one of the better ones. After all, it has the three main requirements of a second-wave Neeson flick:
- Liam Neeson calmly threatening a villain.
- Liam Neeson engaging in tactical fist-fighting in an enclosed space.
- Liam Neeson cradling and comforting somebody as they die.
Oh, and he even makes a winking reference to being infamously well-endowed. I don’t know how I know that, but I do.
Run All Night isn’t perfect, but it is perfect at being what it’s trying to be.
Run All Night opens in Philly area theaters today,