Liam Neeson has now teamed up with director Jaume Collet-Serra three times, and while none of the trio of action-thrillers—Unknown, Non-Stop, and now Run All Night—exactly lit the world on fire, the latest is easily the best of the bunch. There are absolutely no surprises to be found—if you’ve seen the trailers, you know precisely what movie you’re getting—but while it is drastically overlong, if you’re looking for a gritty tale of survival and revenge that feels like it hails from a bygone era, you can do much worse than Run All Night. Solid action and a strong cast elevate the material, which also gains points for the excellent use of a Pogues song.
Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, an aging, down-on-his-luck Irish gangster with only one friend in the world. Fortunately for him, that friend is the neighborhood boss, and childhood pal, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), who is the only reason Jimmy is still around. Jimmy’s estranged son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman) witnesses Shawn’s son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook), execute a pair of Albanian gangsters, and when Danny shows up to “clean up his own mess” by taking care of Mike, Jimmy kills Danny. The father and son are then forced to go on the lamb, hiding from killers, goons, and corrupt cops all night long.
Neeson’s portrayal of Jimmy is an intentional deconstruction of the action hero persona he’s built up in movies like the Taken franchise, where he’s an indestructible killing machine. Jimmy is a drunk, a fuck up who passes out at the bar where the crew hangs out and farts in his sleep. He’s a joke, and if it wasn’t for Shawn keeping him afloat, he’d have been dead long ago. Once a remorseless killer, Shawn’s strong-armed enforcer, in his old age Jimmy’s past haunts him, and he constantly sees the faces of those he killed. He’s broken and fallible, and though he’s experienced and dangerous in this world, he’s the kind of badass who, at any turn, can realistically totally fail and be killed, while still controlling the screen with his charisma.
For his part, Harris plays Shawn with a cold, cool menace. He’s an old school gangster with a code and a sense of duty—he sold cocaine in his youth, but watched too many friends disintegrate under its influence, and won’t go down that path again with heroin. There’s no joy or even malice as he uses his considerable resources to hunt Mike and Jimmy; it’s just what he has to do, and both he and Jimmy know this. They’re fathers, doing what fathers must, protecting and avenging their sons. These are tough guys saying tough things to each other, and the moments when these two great actors come together are the truest pleasures of the film.
Filmed in New York, Run All Night is very much a product of that city. Collet-Serra and writer Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) use this environment to add a layer of grime and grit to the story, grounding it in the real world. A car chase through the Brooklyn streets tips its cap to The French Connection, and the action has that dirt-under-the-fingernails that you don’t find too often in an era of slick, big-budget tentpoles.
There are some stylistic flourishes where, instead of more low-key transitions from scene to scene, the camera swoops from one neighborhood to another, soaring through buildings and fences. Some will like these touches, but for others they serve as a distraction. Showing off the NYC skyline is an unnecessary embellishment as this is already well established as a New York movie, and they’re visually incongruous to the rest of the movie and jarring to watch.
If Run All Night was 20 minutes shorter, maybe even more, it would be a much tighter film. As it is, however, at 114 minutes, the middle is bloated and meandering, with many threads that could easily have been left in the editing suite. There’s an awkward flashback shoehorned into the middle of a scene that itself only exists for the surprise cameo (one so underground that it’s not even listed in the end credits); at one point, in the middle of this night of pursuit and evasion, Jimmy pauses to visit his unconscious mother in the hospital; and even though the scene as a whole is strong, there’s an action-heavy, cat-and-mouse chase through a high-rise housing project that runs too long. Not to mention a very particular assassin, played by Common, who could easily have been replaced to streamline the picture.
Mounting tension, where the pressure ratchets over the course of a scene, is where Run All Night is at its best. Mike and Jimmy maneuvering through the shadowy underworld, and their own troubled relationship, keeps you tight and leaning forward in your seat, though some of the action sequences, specifically the hand-to-hand combat, are a jumble of too-quick, borderline incoherent edits. You’ve seen much worse, but as even and smooth as Collet-Serra’s hand is in some regards, in others it’s much less confident.
Run All Night may run too long, and not deliver anything but exactly what you expect, but it’s a solid hard-boiled crime picture the likes of which you don’t see much these days. Neeson and Harris go blow-for-blow, infusing the film with a bravado and toughness, and Neeson continues to prove that his late-career action renaissance is a good choice, bringing nicely rendered emotional moments to what could otherwise be a too-standard revenge piece. [Grade:: B-]