By Kyle G. King. Liam Neeson has cemented a lucrative brand for himself as a brawny and brainy fighter with a “very particular set of skills.” But as cathartic as it can be to watch him pummel both humans and wolves alike, what the existing Neeson pseudo-genre has lacked up to this point is a grounded and intelligently crafted story to back up all this excessive punching/shooting/running. Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) submits his original screenplay to Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra in hopes of elevating Neeson in Collet-Serra’s third action-packed feature, Run All Night.
Once known as “The Gravedigger,” Jimmy Conlon (Neeson) was a top ranking (and rightfully feared) hitman within his circle of Irish mafiosos. Now 15 years past his prime, Jimmy is a tavern drunk, donning a Santa outfit just to earn his keep as entertainment for his boss’ pompous son, Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook). Jimmy, as you can imagine, has fallen far from grace, yet the elder Maguire, Shawn (a chilling Ed Harris), is always around to help his old friend Jimmy when it’s time to slap him back to reality: “Wherever we’re going when we cross that line, we’re going together,” is what these guys tell each other over and over as they comfort the wounds of their monstrous past. But when Jimmy is forced to protect the life of his own son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), by gunning down Danny in defense, the line these two brothers-in-arms swore to cross together gets trampled in a glut of car chases and gunfights roaring throughout New York City in a fight for survival.
Run All Night proves Ingelsby can pitch a rather well-told story for both the crime-action genre as a whole and for Neeson’s latest reinvention as an action hero. Here, Neeson is more than just a tough guy who can throw a punch, but if there is fault to be found in his Conlon character, it’s found in his top-heavy, misery-laden backstory (a narrative choice that makes his adeptness for combat a little hard to swallow once things begin to get violent). Neeson is proficient enough to fill these holes with just enough pathos in order to garner pity, yet his bravado is still as potent as ever, winning us over with knuckle-scraping action. Within the first act, Jimmy’s falling stature is evident among this well-crafted infrastructure of the criminal underworld, and all of it is graciously laced with evocative themes, histories, and character details.
Unfortunately the film’s second act (where a lot of the action takes place) begins to tarnish the sparkling silver that its script initially supplies. As the film begins to take steps towards guaranteed adrenaline, it sacrifices the rich Shakespearean themes it introduced earlier, themes of fathers and sons, loyalty and tragedy, and the strong camaraderie between Jimmy and Shawn (one scene in particular gives Harris and Neeson a fantastic back and forth, one so good that it’s foolish these heavy themes weren’t placed more squarely onto the capable shoulders of both men). Their “sons” also provide accomplished performances: Holbrook has little screen time to spin Danny as the entitled wunderkind in way over his head, though he doesn’t require much of it; while Kinnaman holds his own against a seasoned veteran like Neeson as the son, husband, and father whose heart of gold negates his desire to stay far away from the life his father chose.
In a dense, eclectic setting like New York City, intriguing supporting characters are easy to come by (and they’re certainly easy to write). Run All Night refuses to trim any of its fat by choosing to hold on to all of them. Vincent D’Onofrio is welcome as The One Good Cop, whose sullen eyes suggest he’s been at this shit for too damn long, but the rest of the cast not only bloats the film without purpose, it diminishes intelligent narrative opportunities. Beau Knapp and Common both provide respectable performances with mild (yet violent) support for Shawn’s character, but each only ever serve as a crutch that forfeits any deeper sense of development.
An action movie’s stakes depend heavily on two points: the director’s ability to make the story believable within its own universe, and each actor’s ability to win the audience over for the duration. Collet-Serra (along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe of The American) provides plenty of heart-pounding footage of New York, but he betrays Ingelsby’s solid script by never making the stakes feel severe enough. The events that ensue are merely well-orchestrated action sequences in place of well-crafted scenarios built around its characters. The world that exists between hero and villain is painted in a beautiful grey, but it’s never fully realized.
Contemporary action movies are not known for award-quality screenplays, but the line between good and bad can keep a movie like Crank (all action with a minimally-crafted plot) far from the peer group of iconic crime-dramas like Pulp Fiction and Heat. Run All Night establishes itself as a film that can stand alongside the works of Statham, but its intention and effort is a respectable swing towards the realm of Tarantino and Mann. If your threshold for tolerance is below that of a mild action fan you might leave the theater wanting; but if you’re all about Liam Neeson hurting people with naught but a gun and his bare hands, Run All Night is a satisfying film that employs its very own particular set of skills.