Since the unexpectedly huge success of Taken in 2008, Liam Neeson’s managed to turn himself into a one-man action movie industry. Run All Night sees him reunite for a third time with French director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop), and the result is an action thriller that gives Neeson’s acting skills a decent workout as well as his trigger finger.
It’s familiar stuff for late-career Neeson at first glance: he plays alcoholic, retired Irish hitman Jimmy “The Grave Digger” Conlon, estranged from his fully-grown son Michael (the RoboCop remake’s Joel Kinnaman) but still friendly with his old mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy’s suffering through a thoroughly miserable Christmas in New York – even demeaning himself by playing a particularly bad Santa at a gangsters’ festive party – when the actions of Shawn’s hot-headed son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) land everyone in a world of pain.
A couple of shoot-outs later, and Jimmy and Michael are on the wrong side of both Maguire and the cops, led by Detective John Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio), who’s been looking to bring Jimmy to book for years. A dogged pursuit across New York ensues, taking in assorted gun fights, car chases and even a couple of good explosions.
The plot’s fairly by-the-numbers, with bits of Heat, Carlito’s Way, 48 Hrs., State Of Grace and even The Terminator all thrown into the mix. What distinguishes Run All Night is its pace, economical writing (courtesy of Brad Ingelsby, who wrote the maudlin drama Out Of The Furnace) and the pedigree of its cast. Collet-Serra keeps things motoring along at a decent clip, allowing his characters time to ponder, plot and brood before flinging them into another crisis.
Neeson, often short-changed by the cast in his recent action thrillers, is partnered with some great actors here. Ed Harris, like Neeson, gives good gruff phone call, and some of the best scenes involve these two; it’s entertaining to watch the pair’s relationship change from respect and friendship to white-knuckled animosity.
In an alternate dimension, Run All Night could have simply been a crime drama solely about Neeson and Harris’s characters; a pair of ageing hoodlums who’ve watched New York changed from a scuzzy gangland to a gentrified playground for the rich. Elements of that film still linger, and they’re pleasing to watch, but they’re soon swept aside as the body count rises and the bullets fly.
On the subject of flying, the director’s added an annoying stylistic tic here, where the camera flaps from location to location like a cross between The Matrix’s bullet time effect and the first-person vampire bat shots from Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys. These distractions aside – which will almost certainly date the film quite quickly – Collet-Serra attacks his action sequences with real brio. Sure, they take in all the staples of the action genre circa 1987, but they get by thanks to their energy and some teeth-rattling sound design. (Anyone disappointed with the way the Taken franchise has gone, with its neutered 12A violence in UK cinemas, will also be heartened by Run All Night’s unvarnished mayhem.)
After the disposable Taken 3, in which Neeson and even the cameramen seemed bored enough to keel over and die mid-shot, Run All Night feels urgent and positively fresh by comparison. Neeson isn’t alone in his gun-waving antics, either; Joel Kinnaman’s perfectly effective as the younger son, tough in his own way (he’s an ex-boxer as well as chauffeur) but less handy with a pistol than his father. And while the difficult father-son relationship is hackneyed stuff (who doesn’t have parental issues in movies these days?) both Kinnaman and Neeson sell it better than most.
The lingering question raised by Run All Night, perhaps, is where does Neeson go from here? This is the second time in a row he’s played an alcoholic (he was hitting the bottle pretty hard in both Non-Stop and A Walk Among The Tombstones), and the umpteenth time he’s played an ex-something-or-other: ex-hitman, ex-CIA operative, ex-detective. Then again, Steven Seagal’s still plugging away on the same purgatorial treadmill in the realm of straight-to-DVD fare, and Neeson’s films are clearly a cut or two above those.
By no means a genre classic, Run All Night is nevertheless a superior showcase for Neeson’s abilities. It’s easy to overlook how good he is at being both a tough guy and an actor with real presence; he’s less Seagal and more Gary Cooper or John Wayne. Run All Night, familiar though its encounters are, presents Neeson at his best – playing the ageing warrior who winces from his wounds, but carries on regardless – while also surrounding him with actors of a suitable calibre. Nick Nolte even shows up to growl through a big hipster beard for one scene, which is a pleasant surprise.
Ultimately, Run All Night feels like one of those films that could have started as a spec script, back when Hollywood was snapping those kinds of things up in the 80s: compact, perhaps a little too tidy, but solidly entertaining. And as unreconstructed action stars go, they don’t come much more charismatic or watchable than Neeson.
Run All Night is out in UK cinemas on the 13th March.
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