Director: Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax, Unknown, Non-Stop)
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Producers: Roy Lee, Michael Tadross, Brooklyn Weaver
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Common
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 114 min.
Another month, another Liam Neeson genre movie. For the fourth time in the past year, the 62-year-old Irishman puts a pistol in hand and hits the streets as the grizzled alternative to the young action stars who aren’t really cutting it these days. While I’ve spent the last five or so years tearing apart every entry that comes out of the Action-Neeson oeuvre, I’m pleasantly surprised to say that Run All Night is the exception to the rule — the first one since the original Taken and even a step above that one that kickstarted it all. Reuniting with director Jaume Collet-Sera, who steered Neeson in the paltry Unknown and the abhorrent Non-Stop this time last year, Run All Night proves that apparently the third time was the charm for this duo. Here they take on a refreshingly hardened approach to their genre sensibilities for a gritty descent into the mean streets of New York City that feels more in line with ’70s American cinema than it does Taken 3.
That’s not to say that it’s on par with movies of that era, but it certainly feels like Neeson and Collet-Serra set out to make something more serious and less absurd than their previous work, and the effort mostly pays off. Neeson portrays Jimmy Conlon, a former mob hitman who’s become a punchline for the new brood of criminals making their way in the organization that holds them in their employ and is run by his longtime friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). The two grew up together and share a deep connection that is shattered when Jimmy is forced to execute Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) when the younger Maguire puts a gun to the head of Jimmy’s estranged son Michael (Joel Kinnaman). As the code of these men goes, Shawn pulls together every resource at his disposal to go after Michael and Jimmy, demanding the blood of the Conlon duo and setting them up for a night they won’t escape without a few scratches.
This setup is routine for what we’ve seen Neeson headlining lately, but the script from Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) takes its time in getting to the thrust of the narrative. Run All Night opens up by building a foundation in the dynamic between Jimmy and Shawn, examining two men who are haunted by the horrific things they had to do in order to survive growing up and have now taken drastically different courses as a result. Jimmy has fallen apart, abandoned his family and spends his days drinking away the misery while wearing the wicked stench of his misdeeds like he’s been sleeping in them for the past two decades. Shawn, on the other hand, has turned over a new leaf as a legitimate businessman and does his best to avoid the temptation of criminal activity for financial gain. In their current state, if you saw these two on the street together you would think one was about to mug the other, not that they were old friends.
Despite their divergent paths the two share a bond that endures, with Neeson and Harris forging a genuine connection that serves to invest the audience in this relationship before everything falls apart. Both actors are the best they’ve been in years, and provide their strongest work when they’re able to work against one another. That dynamic is the emotional high point of Run All Night, but ultimately the film is more about the development of Jimmy and Michael’s relationship, one that is similarly fraught with a history of troubled times that all comes to the surface over the course of this one night. In his recent stretch of action roles, Neeson has too often felt like he’s sleepwalking for an easy paycheck but here he comes alive by going deep into the gutter as a man who has to pull himself out for the sake of his son. For the first time the actor manages to combine his admiration for genre thrills with the genuine dramatic skills and ability to craft a character that longtime fans have been missing out on lately.
He’s matched by two impressive performances in Harris and Kinnaman. Harris gets the best of both worlds in that he’s able to hit the genuine pathos that usually eludes genre fare, particularly in the antagonist roles, while also chewing the scenery once the action heats up. Kinnaman, meanwhile, struggled in his leading man coming out with last year’s RoboCop but finds himself right at home in the angry, troubled Michael, who is a genuinely good man just trying to do the right thing. Even more cursory roles are filled up with talent like Vincent D’Onofrio, who despite minimum attention is able to bring to life a character who feels real and yearns for further exploration. Nick Nolte also pops up in a random, uncredited cameo and continues to look like he’s on death’s bed. Run All Night doesn’t skimp on the intense action sequences or stylistic flare, but it builds a solid foundation in its characters that makes it stand out among the pack and keeps the audience invested when things become more routine.
Collet-Serra’s film surprisingly works, even with the occasional bit of on-the-nose dialogue or silly plot turn, but the one element that really drags it down comes in the form of an assassin, played by Common. While most of Run All Night succeeds in creating a hard, somber atmosphere that brings the audience into the grime with its characters, every scene with his one-note villain feels like it’s ripped out of a comic book. The remainder of the film isn’t the most authentic thing out there, and is still a genre movie when it comes down to it, but these scenes take a B-movie more in the vein of Shoot ‘Em Up and clash them hard against something much darker and not at all camp. It doesn’t help that the character is entirely unnecessary, dragging the plot out longer than it warrants, and there’s ludicrous implausibility in the fact that this highly-paid professional killer is as inept as he proves to be. Without this element, Run All Night would succeed on an even more impressive level but as it stands it remains a surprisingly solemn, character-based success and without question the best thing Neeson has done in years.