Tuesday, February 09, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Run All Night

Liam Neeson is so far into his second career as a soulful, grieving action hero that it can be hard to remember a time when he was more known for films like Schindler's List, Love Actually, and Michael Collins. Part of what has made him so successful in this role is that he never seems to be phoning it in. Liam Neeson commits fully to the sometimes-preposterous action films he's been starring in to a level far beyond what they might otherwise warrant. Simply by signing on to a film he's raised its cultural and critical cachet. And yet, the formula is showing signs of decay. His character descriptions are starting to read like self-parody, and the plotlines and stylistic touches are beginning to blur together. In Run All Night, Neeson's third film with director Jaume Collet-Serra (the others are Non-Stop and Unknown, with a fourth one on the way!), he plays an aging hitman for the mob who hasn't worked in years, but is kept around by the boss (Ed Harris) out of sentimental reasons. Neeson's wife is dead, his son wants nothing to do with him, he's never seen his grandkids, and he's a punchline to everyone he used to work with, resorting to playing Santa Claus at a Christmas party for the rest of the gang in order to get a few hundred bucks to fix his heater. The trouble starts, in a manner too convoluted for me to care about detailing, when Ed Harris' hothead son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) threatens the life of Liam Neeson's son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), prompting Neeson to shoot him, and Harris to vow his revenge.

This setup seems pretty strong, bolstered by a cast more than capable of giving this material weight and resonance, and overseen by a director who has experience with the type of grim action pieces Liam Neeson's new fans have come to expect. Maybe it's all of the great old school, straightforward action films I've been watching in recent weeks, but Run All Night seemed like nothing more than a missed opportunity. The plot I described up above seems like the perfect jumping off point for a no-nonsense action film with shadings of Greek tragedy in the relationship between its two leads. I hate to compare a movie I'm watching to the one I've got in my head, but I couldn't stop thinking about what Walter Hill might have done with this in his heyday, or what Nicolas Winding Refn would have done with it today. Instead the film we got is a portentous mess that squanders the amazing chemistry Neeson and Harris bring to their brief scenes together.

And chemistry they do have. Ed Harris brings an unforced intensity to every part he plays, while Neeson brings a wounded, slightly hangdog seriousness to these action films, and the two work great together. In only a couple of scenes they sell the idea that these two completely different individuals are actually lifelong friends that have drifted far apart over the years, but still enjoy each other's company. The rest of the cast is a little shakier in comparison. Joel Kinnaman is a decent enough actor, though he's a bit of a non presence here. Nick Nolte shows up in a brief cameo that was delightfully unexpected, and yet didn't really amount to much. The real dud, however, is Common as an almost supernaturally efficient hitman. His weird sci-fi appearance and odd facial makeup (I think they meant to give him a harelip, but it just looks like he's just suffering from a bad cold sore) seem to have been airlifted in from another movie.

Run All Night is a dark film, in more than just plot. The film is murky and artfully underlit, distorting the action scenes sometimes to the point of abstraction. After awhile it became visual white noise; two or more characters would converge, the screen would get all choppy and blurry while I could hear the unmistakable sounds of fists hitting chests and skulls hitting walls, and then someone would run away, and I would assume they had just won the fight. It was hard to get a sense of where the characters were and what they were doing at any time, a problem made paradoxically worse by Collet-Serra's repeated tendency to link scenes by zooming the camera quickly through the city to focus on what other characters are doing at other locations. This was intended to give the film a sense of scope to Neeson's journey as he races to keep his estranged family out of the clutches of Harris' goons, and to ground it in a real and definable place, but it came out as distancing, giving physical spaces an abstract feeling, removing them from the real world.

In the end, Run All Night's biggest problem is one of expectation. For a film centered around -and titled after- the concept of continuous movement and escape, the film sure does spend a lot of time with characters who are just sitting and talking in underlit rooms. The best, or at least most memorable, of Liam Neeson's action films, like The Grey or the first Taken film, have benefited from a constant sense of forward momentum. They put Neeson's grim determination to work, propelling the film along with a certain sense of fatalistic energy. Run All Night, on the other hand, stops and starts so often that by the time the end comes around (which, due to the cold open, we've seen most of already), my interest had well and truly deflated.

Final Rating: 2.5(out of 5)

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