The sins of the father visit violently on the son in Run All Night, aka “This Year’s Shoot-’Em-Up in Which Someone Messes with Liam Neeson’s Family.” Although the actor hasn’t turned his back entirely on the serious films (Schindler’s List, Michael Collins) that made him famous — he’s currently starring in Silence for Martin Scorsese, due in 2016 — he has carved out a lucrative niche for himself, cranking out popular, formulaic action pictures, many of which center on his efforts to rescue his missing [insert close relative here]. In these films, Neeson comes off as a more gifted, commanding Charles Bronson, which helps elevate these rote exercises in genre and distract you from the fact that many of these movies are, at heart, complete nonsense.
The same goes for Run All Night, in which Neeson plays Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Conlon, a retired, world-weary hit man leading a destitute life and estranged from his grown son (Joel Kinnaman). He still keeps in touch with his former boss and best friend, the Brooklyn gangster Shawn (Ed Harris), who occasionally throws Jimmy an easy job, usually an errand for his loose-cannon son (Boyd Holbrook), who is in line to inherit his father’s criminal enterprise even though he lacks his old man’s smarts or finesse.
Unfolding over the course of a single, increasingly desperate night (à la the underrated Running Scared, starring Paul Walker), Jimmy is forced to protect the life of his son while dodging a dogged detective (Vincent D’Onofrio) hellbent on arresting him for his former crimes and a series of killers (including Common, cutting a fearsome figure) Shawn sets loose on him after an unfortunate accident.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who hoodwinked the audience big time with the fantastic bad-seed thriller Orphan and has since gotten into the Liam Neeson business (Non-Stop, Unknown), makes good use of real New York locations that contribute to the film’s gritty, no-nonsense feel, even though he plays fast and loose with geography (in one scene, Neeson crosses 42nd Street and Broadway to enter Madison Square Garden). Those types of meaningless details stand out in a crime thriller that is otherwise well thought-out and, for the most part, plausible, although there are moments that push the edges of credibility. I don’t know about you, but if someone pressed my head against a white-hot sheet of metal during a fight and seared off half my face, I’d have to pause and cut loose with a few “Man, that burns!” before rejoining the fray.
Although Run All Night makes a big deal of the characters’ Irish heritage, the film doesn’t really do much with it (for a richer exploration of the Irish crime underworld in America, check out 1990’s State of Grace, starring Sean Penn and Gary Oldman). The movie is also briefly sidelined by one of those unbilled and unnecessary cameos that stop the picture cold while you sit there wondering “Hey, isn’t that … ? Yeah, it is!” and then the scene is over. Despite the lack of substance, Run All Night is far better than those clunky Taken movies with their timid PG-13 ratings. If you’re gonna cut Neeson loose against the mob, a bloody R is the way to go. And although the actor could coast through this kind of vehicle by now, he still puts effort into his performance: Jimmy isn’t one of Neeson’s unstoppable, wolf-punching machines. He’s vulnerable, racked by guilt and severely outnumbered, and there are several times in the movie in which he uses his wits instead of bullets to extricate himself from a difficult situation. In this kind of picture, that’s called a plot twist.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Common, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 114 minutes. Vulgar language, gun violence, gore, drug use. Playing at: area theaters.