Tag Archives: Taken

A Tale of Two Neesons — “Run All Night”

Run All Night Liam Neeson

by Gabriel Valdez

It’s rare that an actor becomes an action star in his late 50s. Liam Neeson was hardly unknown and he’s not among the tombstones yet, but he is getting pretty grey. To tell the truth, I was quite taken with Neeson’s latest non-stop action movie.

And if you’re rolling your eyes at that opening paragraph, it just goes to show you what a cottage industry Liam Neeson action movies have become. The references hidden in those three sentences alone have made nearly one-and-a-half billion dollars worldwide.

When making an action movie with Neeson, you have two options. Option one: stick to the formula. Neeson usually plays tough, flawed men exiled from their families. In Run All Night, Neeson’s Jimmy Conlon has a son who hasn’t talked to him in five years. His brother distrusts him. He doesn’t even know when his own mother goes into the hospital. An alcoholic hit man, Jimmy’s only kept around in his old age because he grew up with the gang’s boss, Sean (Ed Harris).

When Jimmy shows up to help his own son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), it’s not out of familial duty, it’s as a favor to Sean. Unfortunately, things go awry and Jimmy ends up killing Sean’s son Danny. Jimmy has to protect Mike and family from gangsters and corrupt cops as they Run All Night.

How much of his taste for these roles reflects Neeson’s loss of his own wife, Natasha Richardson, in a 2009 skiing accident may make for a fascinating biography one day. (Watch The Grey and try to separate the actor’s grief from his character’s.) There’s a reason he connects to these characters and plays them with such a protective and personal fervor.

Option two: undermine the formula. Neeson’s characters are often functional alcoholics. Make this one dysfunctional. Neeson’s characters usually want to live and fix things. Give this one a death wish and no hope. Neeson’s characters are usually charming. Make this one rude and despicable. Neeson’s characters are all expert fighters. In most other Neeson action movies, his size, reach, and how hard he can punch are on display. He fistfights with skill. Here, his only talent is taking punishment, getting beaten like a side of beef. These changes in the formula make the movie compelling.

Run All Night Neeson train

Run All Night is a pretty great entry into this cottage industry. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s filmed almost entirely on location in New York at night. It breathes and oozes New York better than most films that take place there, even if it cheats the geography a little. There are well-shot chase scenes in cars, on foot, through burning apartments and down the side of a building. There are fistfights and gunfights.

If there’s one problem, it’s that Run All Night keeps trying to follow option one and option two. While he’s on the run, Neeson is a dysfunctional drunk and a liar, one of his most challenging and unlikable characters in years. It’s also one of his best performances in these films. We root for him not because he charms us, but because we pity him. It’s a change-of-pace that makes familiar setpieces feel fresh. Yet, inevitably, we’ll see Super-Neeson at some point. Usually that’s a good thing, but when he shows up here it runs against the grain of the rest of the film.

While Neeson’s on the run, it’s captivating stuff. He plays desperate as well as anybody and here he gets to do it twice over – desperate on the run and desperate to reconnect with his son.

So what does separate this from Neeson’s other action work? Firstly, the style. If you like gritty, this is Neeson’s grittiest. This is Neeson’s third film with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop) and each time out, the pair find a new sense of narrative and style to inhabit. Secondly, Harris and Kinnaman are superb in this. Between the three leads, a great supporting turn by Genesis Rodriguez, and capable performances by Vincent D’Onofrio and Common, this is as good a cast as you’ll find in these films. They cover over any weak spots in the script and make the strongest moments shine. Harris and Neeson, in particular, get a trio of scenes that elevate the entire movie.

Run All Night feels like it’s poised to be something more, but in the end gives us exactly what we expect. That said, it does it very well. It’s in stiff competition with a lot of other R-rated action movies right now. If I had to choose one, it would still be Chappie (read the review), but that’s comparing apples to oranges. “Run All Night” doesn’t excel, but it doesn’t disappoint either.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Run All Night have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Genesis Rodriguez plays Gabriela Conlon, Mike’s wife. They have two daughters. Patricia Kalember plays Rose Maguire, Sean’s wife. Giulia Cicciari and Carrington Meyer play Gabriela’s two daughters. Jessica Ecklund plays the wife of a gangster named Frank.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes, but only just. Ecklund serves to be hit on by a drunken Jimmy. Kalember only has a handful of lines to her husband. Mike and Gabriela’s two daughters do briefly speak to each other and to Gabriela.

3. About something other than a man?

Hard to call. The Conlon daughters speak to each other about hide-and-seek and ask a few questions of Gabriela while hiding from gangsters, so technically yes, but these are so few (a couple words, really) and so brief (taking a few seconds) it’s really difficult to give Run All Night, a movie essentially dominated by male characters and their relationships, any credit for it.

Liam Neeson Doesn’t Let Down in “Non-Stop”

NonStop 1

Liam Neeson is a lot like Punxsutawney Phil. Just as the famous groundhog looks for his own shadow every February 2, the rugged Irish actor stars in a low-budget action movie every February or March. The only difference is the groundhog predicts how much more winter we have left to endure. Neeson’s a lot more consistent – his arrival always marks the beginning of the action movie season.

This time out, Neeson plays Air Marshall Bill Marks. An hour into his transatlantic flight out of London, he begins getting strange texts on his phone declaring a passenger will die every 20 minutes. As set-ups go, it’s a clever one, sort of like an Agatha Christie novel on fast-forward. Thankfully, it’s handled very well. For its first two-thirds, Non-Stop is an engrossing mystery. The smartest thing it does is immediately cast suspicion on Marks himself, creating a narrative in which even the protagonist has to earn your faith. After all, when you can’t trust Liam Neeson, who can you trust?

Like his characters in Taken, Unkown, and The Grey, Neeson plays a weathered alcoholic whose family has been broken by trauma and his hard-nosed, job-first lifestyle. There’s a formula to these films, and Neeson’s developed a dedicated shorthand to communicating these characters to us by the time the first scene’s done. Non-Stop fleshes the cast out a little more than those other films, however. As in the Airport movies of the 70s and more recent disaster films, the plane will inevitably hold a doctor, a policeman, a corrupt policeman, a banker, a teacher, a distressed pilot, and a young child who must overcome her fears when it’s most emotionally poignant. It’s like an overpopulated “So-and-so walks into a bar” joke.

NonStop 2

Again, Neeson knows how to skip across these set-ups in a heartbeat in order to focus us on the plot’s tensions. It helps that director Jaume Collet-Serra films the movie’s tensest moments as a trained marshal might perceive a knotty situation, scanning his environment, selecting details that don’t fit, and gauging the relationships between different suspects. Neeson’s supporting cast is better than many of his previous action movies, as well. Julianne Moore (Children of Men) plays Jen, a spunky, maybe-too-helpful passenger who spends takeoff trying to pick Neeson up. She’s joined by Linus Roache (Law and Order), Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and our newest best supporting actress (and my college classmate) Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave).

I mentioned the first two-thirds of Non-Stop are a good mystery. That begs the question, what does the last third become? Perhaps inevitably, it turns into a cheesy 90s action movie, in which heartfelt speeches earn trust better than hard evidence, and outnumbered heroes even the odds through superior stunt work. What earlier seemed clever may suddenly feel a touch too simple. It’s at this point that Non-Stop should lose you, but it’s too late – the mystery’s tension and the performances of such a strong cast have already earned more than enough goodwill to convince your brain to just let it ride.

This is the kind of movie that the Neesons and Bruce Willises of the world pull off with ease. They cover when the plot falters because they know all the steps – heck, they invented half of them. Non-Stop does want to say something about how too much security can make us less safe, but it suffers a severe case of wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. You’ll know what the film’s trying to say by the end, but all the wrong people have all the wrong motives to make its message even remotely effective. Non-Stop is really best viewed as a thrill ride, and not any kind of commentary.

NonStop 3

On a personal note, I tried to see this movie four times. The first, I was waylaid to the hospital, the second I postponed because of a sick pet, and the third saw me 30 seconds into the movie before a fistfight broke out between a half-dozen people in the theater. If you go to the theater, please have the decency to leave your fistfights outside – they won’t be nearly as good as Liam Neeson’s. Hmm, perhaps we need theater marshals. Non-Stop is rated PG-13 for action, some language, sensuality, and drug references. All of this but the action’s in passing, so it’s fairly safe for family viewing.