Liam Neeson has become the ghost of action stars long past.
In a cinematic era dominated by righteous superheroes, he leans towards playing drunks, divorced dads, derelicts … flawed failures, all of them, to one degree or another. It’s a nod to the morally murky vigilantes of ’70s cinema (see: Eastwood and Bronson) in which, as in noir, heroes failed by design. Neeson’s weathered face, weary walk, and history of personal tragedy have rendered him a living shortcut. He’s code for regret.
“I’ve done terrible things.” That’s his first line in Run All Night, the latest film to play off his iconic visage for instant pathos. Neeson is Jimmy the gravedigger, a retired hitman who left his family years ago. Now he hangs out in bars, killing time and waiting to die. He slumps in the corners of compositions like he’s going to crash out of frame. He walks like a tree with a damaged trunk. Most often he just hangs around his old boss (Ed Harris) waiting for handouts. He’s a tired, old dog.
A lesser Neeson film like Taken is just a character and a concept (daughter is abducted, dad kills abductors) but Run All Night earns the word “narrative.” Over the course of the first act, a series of unexpected coincidences split the character’s allegiances, pitting Neeson and his son (Joel Kinnaman) against Harris and his crew. The impending payment of debts long past due looms over each scene. This is an action film of course, with enough gunshots and knife fights to satisfy John Woo, but a sadness courses throughout in spite of that. When the camera pauses on Neeson, it’s for a last look at his tragically disheveled face. Taken, this is not.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra derives deep enjoyment from each death. When Neeson shoots people, we enter slow-motion of brain matter explosions everywhere and a general Taxi Driver spirit emerges. There’s only one idealistic person in Run All Night—Kinnaman, Neeson’s failed pro-boxer son—and the film treats his decency as weakness, one demanding to be shattered. By the end, he’s firing bullets too, and at a local screening there was wild applause from the crowd viewing the final kill. There’s a deep melancholy here, but the bloodshed isn’t causing it.
“All the old places look different now,” Harris’ boss complains, taking a look around his newly cleaned-up local pub, surrounded by newly gentrified boroughs. That’s the source of Run All Night’s sadness. The passing of the guard, and the passage of time, subs in for the tired “sins of the father” trope. Symbols of the past pervade constantly, with panning shots revealing family photos of happier times. But when Neeson grabs a gun for the final showdown, it’s an old pump-action rifle, suggesting everything here has an expiration date, especially the Old-World, drink-first-then-shoot-then-ask-questions-later mold of masculinity.
Run All Night laments that we have but one Liam Neeson. And that we won’t have men like him much longer.
RUN ALL NIGHT. RATED R. OPENS LOCALLY THURSDAY MARCH 12. 114MIN.