This is probably sad, but somehow it doesn’t feel sad: The most consistently satisfying thing in the American cinema right now is the Liam Neeson action movie. With Taken, released in January 2009, the right formula met the right actor, and ever since, it has been a delight watching Neeson play downtrodden, fundamentally decent men who realize themselves by becoming homicidal maniacs.
Now we have Run All Night directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who has previously directed two of the better Neeson thrillers, Unknown (2012) and Non-Stop (2014). Collet-Serra understands the essential truth of these Neeson films, that they are thinly disguised rags-to-riches tales, in which a worthy person starts off low and ends up high.
The lower he starts off, the better. In Taken, Neeson began as a former CIA agent, emasculated by domesticity. In Non-Stop, he was an alcoholic air marshal, boozing it up before a TransAtlantic flight. In Run All Night, he’s really a mess: A drunken, conscience-ridden former hit-man, reduced to begging for handouts from his friend and former boss (Ed Harris).
How bad does it get? In an early scene, he has to tank up on booze in order to play Santa Claus at the boss’ Christmas party. The kids complain that he smells bad, and he makes lewd remarks to the wives. Clearly, this is a man without hope. He may have a particular set of skills, but they’re not in demand . . . until they are.
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Jimmy (Neeson) also has a grown son, Michael, who hates him (of course), but that doesn’t stop Jimmy from saving his life. On the big night, Jimmy kills the man who is about to kill Michael. Unfortunately, the dead man is the son of the mob boss, which means that Jimmy and Michael have to . . . run all night.
The sheer perversity of Neeson’s thrillers are a big part of their delight. Taken, for example, was all about a father who gains the love of his teenage daughter by shooting, choking, stabbing and electrocuting scores of people. (Then in Taken 2, he bonded with the daughter by teaching her to throw hand grenades.) In Run All Night, Neeson is redeemed as a family man by going on a shooting spree.
This is sick, but it’s a variety of sick that is strangely appealing. The closest precedent for Neeson’s thrillers is the “Death Wish” series of the 1970s, with Charles Bronson as a mild-mannered man who becomes a vigilante. But Bronson’s rampages were random and done out of hate, while Neeson is always motivated by love.
This makes his films more twisted, while paradoxically making Neeson more lovable and cuddly.
In fact, in Run All Night Neeson is so loving, he doesn’t just love his son. He also loves the mob boss, who’s trying to kill his son.
Watching the film, you can see that Collet-Serra worked with Neeson and Harris to make their relationship feel lived in and full of unspoken affection and a shared past.
Every time they get together, they tell stories about the old days, and for once the stories sound like real stories about things that might actually have been enjoyable. Sometimes two old buddies have nothing in common but the past, but if they’re each other’s link to some lost, cherished part of themselves, that can be enough.
After devising a sturdy frame for Neeson’s special brand of sorrowful mayhem, the filmmakers expertly fill in Run All Night with a series of charged action scenes, including a rare one in which Neeson chases after a cop car, instead of the other way around. The stakes are high, and the odds aren’t good. He’s such a decent person, and he’s clearly the underdog. He’s just doing what anybody would do under the circumstances.
Yes, even when you’re smirking, Neeson makes you care.
Run All Night
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman
Rated: R (strong violence, strong language including sexual references, drug use)
Running time: 114 mins.