Silver Screen: Run All Night ***1/2
If you’re a little fatigued of movies in which an aging Liam Neeson murders people, let me suggest an alternative approach. I like to imagine that Neeson is still playing an improbably well-preserved Oskar Schindler. Haunted by the horrors of World War II and the lives he couldn’t save, he works out his frustrations by beating the tar sands out of terrorists and Eastern European mercenaries. He’s still so mad about the Holocaust. “This watch!” he cries. “I could have used this watch to strangle the former KGB agent who abducted my entire extended family!”
If you’re not burned out on Neeson’s Action Movie Senior Tour, the latest installment, Run All Night, is one of his better efforts. He wisely reteams with Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed him in the programmatic Unknown but also the delightfully loopy Non-stop. (Collet-Serra also helmed two enjoyable horror movies, the arch Orphan and the knowingly preposterous House of Wax remake.) Collet-Serra fashions Run All Night as more of a crime drama than an adrenaline-fueled shoot ‘em up, and it’s a nifty hybrid, even if ultimately both he and the script by Brad Inglesby (Out of the Furnace) abandon the distinctive flavor they’ve created in favor of high-fructose action-movie junk.
At this point in his career, any hitman Neeson plays is going to be an old hitman. Unlike Bryan Mills, the indestructible and indefatigable hero in the Taken series, Neeson’s character here is feeling his age. Jimmy Conlon wasn’t a globetrotting assassin, just a cold-hearted thug for hire who helped his best pal Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) take control of the New York underworld by rubbing out anyone who stood in the way. Conlon was never convicted, much to the chagrin of the beleaguered Detective Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio), but his reputation earned him the nickname Gravedigger. But all the bad years and bad deeds have taken their toll. While Shawn emerged as a wealthy, semi-legitimate businessman, Jimmy is a lonely, loveless rummy stewing nightly in cheap booze and regret.
Both men have sons. Shawn’s hotheaded heir Danny (Boyd Holbrook) followed his pop into the gangster business, while Jimmy’s estranged son Mike (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman) rejected his father in favor of scraping out a tough but legit blue-collar existence as a limo driver. Mike has distanced himself from his father’s criminal past in order to provide a safe life for his wife (Genesis Rodriguez) and children, which only makes the irony more bitter when, during a randomly assigned chauffeur gig, he witnesses Danny execute another crook in a drug deal gone wrong. Upon learning the news, Shawn summons Jimmy to talk to Mike and find an amicable solution, but when Danny decides to take matters into his own hands he puts all four men on a tragic collision course.
Run All Night is predicated on a couple of major coincidences. Collet-Serra ameliorates the shabby plotting by packing his characters into the same small, bustling borough. He highlights their nearness and tertiary connections with the scene transitions, which pull back to Grand Theft Auto-style city maps and then swoop over a few blocks to zoom in on the next scene. It’s a nice trick that both gives the audience a clear sense of spatial relations and also enforces the idea that everyone’s business is bumping up against one another in this little outpost of New York City.
Collet-Serra doesn’t distinguish the territory quite as well as, say, the cloistered Boston neighborhood that served as the essential background in The Drop. He gives the setting texture, but it’s formed from synthetic materials, and his style is too slick to convey real street-level grittiness. Still, the neighborhood setting contextualizes the characters and evokes the shared history that makes the warring fathers so interesting. As such, it’s a shame when the action spills into Manhattan and locations made generic by a thousand other movies.
Run All Night is at its best when it is compressed— both temporally and spatially. The first act is cleverly paralleled by a big hockey game that plays in the background of several scenes before eventually serving as a plot device itself. After the game, the timeline is never quite so clear, although the filmmakers stay true to their title as they send Neeson and Kinnaman careening around the city until dawn.
As the tension escalates, so does the action, until what started as a crime drama gives way to improbable pyrotechnics and big setpieces. (Swat teams! Helicopters! Flaming stick fights!) This is less interesting than everything that has come before it, but Collet-Serra stages some complex and thrilling action sequences nonetheless.
The water line in Run All Night, which separates the smarter action-tinged crime movie from the more brainless melee, is the appearance of rapper Common as unstoppable hitman Andrew Price. Through no fault of Common’s performance, it’s an absurd, cartoonish character that seems to belong to an entirely different, much worse movie. The real delights are subtler and smaller and smarter, delivered via great character actors like Bruce McGill and Holt McCallany, and even pretty boy Holbrook, who makes a grade-A punk.
Of course, the heavy lifting is done by Neeson and Harris. The true inspiration of Taken was to elevate a forgettable movie via the gravitas of a real-deal thespian. (See the formula repeated in this week’s newly released The Gunman, which finds Sean Penn trying to class up a boilerplate actioneer.) It’s a gimmick that works, and when the movie is at least kinda-sorta good on its own, as is Run All Night, a talented performer can carry it the rest of the way. Neeson lends credibility to Jimmy’s lowly state in the earlygoing, drunkenly sneering at children and leering at their mothers while he humiliates himself in a Santa Claus suit for booze money. We know Jimmy is going to snap into action to save his family at some point, but he makes us yearn for it anyway and is able to render the moment supremely satisfying, like a magician still able to dazzle with a card trick you’ve seen a dozen times before. He and Harris, so wonderfully controlled and menacing, make a fine pair of allies-turned-antagonists caught up in a counterfeit Greek tragedy that overachieves in its best moments and still works okay when it falters.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.