You may be tempted at this point in Liam Neeson’s career to lump his recent movies together, and not simply because the past two features he has made with director Jaume Collet-Serra are “Non-Stop” and the just-released “Run All Night.” (Proposed next titles: “Just Keep Going,” “Don’t Slow Down.”) These blur with the “Taken” series because, while none of them quite pit Neeson vs. the world, they tend to set up Neeson the Family Man vs. the Terrorists or Maybe a Bunch of Gangsters.
Remember when he played Oskar Schindler? His Oscar nomination for that Best Picture winner seemed to vault him into a certain tier of performer, though that never guarantees prestige roles will come, or that they’ll pay when they do, or that they’ll be as fun as chasing a police car in a Thunderbird and choking out a mobster with a towel on the floor of a public restroom. He’s now Liam Neeson, Action Hero, and if you have a problem with that, you can still catch him voicing a crooked cop in “The Lego Movie.”
For whatever reason, we’re down to this Neeson, who has the brute and the bearing to brawl his way through these cat-and-mouse revenge fantasies. He must get a kick out of them, in some fashion; still, it’s odd to see a guy turn from Ben Kingsley into Bruce Willis.
In “Run All Night” he’s a retired hit man, distinguished from his retired cop or retired intelligence agent roles by his hovel-sad Queens apartment and his penchant for ugly drunkenness. He goes way back with a gangster played by Ed Harris, whose face these days is as hard and craggy as a desert fencepost. The hit man has no relationship with his upright grown son, played by Joel Kinnaman, formerly your most recent incarnation of RoboCop, until a nasty event involving the gangster’s reckless son, Boyd Holbrook, puts all their lives in some serious danger. The estranged son then finds it’s not so bad to have a killer known in his heyday as the Gravedigger running point for you.
The whole thing works well enough as a genre film, with the caveat that “Run All Night” suffers many of the same weaknesses as its crime-action-family brethren, giving its characters so little time to get to know one another that their passion comes off as melodrama.
Setting up, for example, a distant father and son to dodge death together (car chases, near escapes, catching bullets, the rest) while they try to cover the past 20 painful years is a high-risk proposition. Those grudges have got to run pretty deep if they’re going to trump a pack of gangsters coming to make you dead. All the bickering on the son’s part feels like a case of “believe me, this can wait.” But at least we get the satisfying tension between having kids and being evil, with the implicit moral that parents will do some truly wicked deeds on behalf of their young’uns.
It’s not a great gangster movie, perhaps, but it isn’t a terrible New York movie. The outer boroughs never get nearly the treatment of Manhattan, but similar to “The Drop,” a stronger gangland movie of last year set in Brooklyn, “Run All Night” gives its best heart to Queens, a giant community bereft of visible landmarks. In neighborhoods, through backyards and across train platforms, you get a more claustrophobic, more intimate chase than would happen amid a sea of skyscrapers.
New York has its answer to backwoods survivalists nestled into brick two-stories all over Queens and Kings counties, folks who dig into a patch of ground and defend it with their sweat for the next 40 or 50 years. Harris’s port-controlling crime boss illustrates this with some vividness when he rejects a deal to import heroin, telling his flabbergasted son that he already imported cocaine in the ’80s and had to watch the drug destroy everyone around him.
Those are the sort of nested motives and backstories that would be fun to root up. “Run All Night” reaches partway into this wormy world, but comes back out before really getting its hands dirty — all over too soon.