Starring Liam Neeson, Ed Harris and your auditorium’s subwoofer, “Run All Night” is a loud, rumbling slog that suggests the most arthritic Neesploitation film to date isn’t the one with a number wedged into its title.
This is the third team-up between Neeson and Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, after Unknown (a cluttered, clunky mess with ably directed action) and Non-Stop (which at least affected an amiable anything-goes approach to aerial insanity). To watch those is to know they could’ve done worse in the B-action genre … and now they have.
Brad Ingelsby’s script flails for subtextual weight in the stained-soul story of Jimmy Conlon (Neeson), a drunk, aging hitman who is unexpectedly forced to save his estranged son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), from the wrath of Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), his old-school mobster boss.
Amid cheap-looking bullet-time pans and CG swoops to cover large swaths of New York geography, Collet-Serra flings his camera skyward into the troposphere. It’s as if to say the film’s constantly clattering thunderstorm are God’s own tears for these sad Irishmen. That the film stops short of someone shouldering a literal cross seems to constitute restraint.
The film tries to conjoin the complexly desolate melancholy of Neeson’s underrated A Walk Among the Tombstones (to which the movie bears several surprisingly specific resemblances, down to casting) to the unrelenting machismo of the Taken series. But like Ingelsby’s script for Out of the Furnace before it, Run All Night is a rote potboiler with pretensions toward Catholic-guilt profundity. (“Just because I’m not behind bars doesn’t mean I’m not payin’ for what I did,” Jimmy says.) Plus, to satisfy expectations of maximized mainstream mayhem, it hoists way too many Hail Marys.
Formerly known as “The Gravedigger,” Jimmy is now a sad, stumbling sot — his victims’ names as irreversibly carved into his psyche as initials on the tables in Shawn’s pub. The newfound legitimacy of Shawn’s long-dirty business has rendered Jimmy’s lethal forte useless. But he keeps Jimmy around both out of pity for his pal and as a paean to days past, when goodfellas grinded out a few scores a year, and before Applebee’s gutted mom-and-pop butchers in gentrification’s name and before heroin smuggling became the next generation’s idea of a growth industry.
That last bit sparks Shawn’s point of contention with his own son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook), a hothead in deep with Albanian kingpins on the deal his dad torpedoes. Shawn’s veto triggers a calamitous chain of events in which Michael, a blue-collar chauffeur with a family, sees too much, and Danny winds up dead by Jimmy’s hand.
Neeson plays the aftermath of Danny’s death perfectly. He doesn’t hustle to hide the body or snap Michael out of his shock; he simply staggers into a chair, puffs a smoke, and lets the weight of the heaviest corpse he’s ever left sink in. In a fitting bit of immediate penitence, he also phones Shawn to tell him what has happened, offering his life in exchange for Michael’s. But Shawn’s Old Testament compulsion to see Jimmy suffer precisely the same fate propels them, and their families, toward an inevitable collision.
The only zing to Run All Night arrives in scenes shared by Neeson and Harris, of which there are far too few. It’s a pleasure to watch this pair of professionals enliven their exchanges by excavating emotions that aren’t on the page. Early on after Jimmy drunkenly embarrasses himself at Shawn’s home, Shawn’s reaction is a good meal, a comfy bed and tender talk; Harris singlehandedly spins the conversation from sincere friendship into a Svengali’s strategy of knowing exactly how to manipulate aging muscle whose loyalty and ferocity may yet prove useful.
A later moment in a steakhouse finds the friends chewing through the tough, gristly dialogue to find the meaty, unspoken mea maxima culpas that have brought them to this place. The film needs more of the nuance in their gruff, gnashed-teeth détente and less of the moronic narrative fabrications that pass for momentum.
For example, when Jimmy sees two cops he knows to be dirty enter Michael’s house, why not disable them before they detain Michael? Well, then you’d have no car chase cut to mask the driving team’s blown power slides or the implication of Michael in a cop shooting. Concerned as Jimmy is with Michael never firing a weapon at someone, he creates far too many opportunities for it to happen. And as yet another gifted young actor with whom Hollywood action films know not what to do, the dynamically twitchy and tetchy Kinnaman is left to simply gape at the chaos and engage in turgid “you weren’t there!” father-son shouting. Meanwhile, the night promises a constant hell-raising convergence of cops and criminals upon the Conlons … yet Jimmy, whose famous face is once again plastered on TV screens, somehow sneaks into a hospital to visit his dying mother.
Unlike Neeson and Collet-Serra’s previous collaborations, there’s rarely any spark to the action, which follows the tired template of alternating beefy guys beating each other with clumsily choreographed gunplay. As an NYPD helicopter swarms a tenement high-rise in which Jimmy and Michael hide, you’ll half-hope Jimmy takes it down with his handgun, Grand Theft Auto-style, to rouse the film from its torpor.
Run All Night’s lone, inventively medieval innovation is when Common (as Jimmy’s high-tech rival) and Neeson whale on each other with torches. With a conspicuous night-vision monocle and laser sighting, Common looks like the Terminator, and the actor’s charisma is filed down to similarly robotic monotony.
Throughout Run All Night, it’s difficult to not think about the fun and finesse John Wick brought to a similar scenario, and how joylessly obligatory all of this feels by comparison. There are furtive stabs at humor, but Neeson’s swinging-dick quips about, well, the size of his swinging dick feel wooden; they lack the smug, smirking wink required to really sell the idea that no one involved is taking this too seriously. The resultant bust wheezes, lumbers and limps all night much more than it runs.