“I’m coming after you with everything I’ve got,” growls Irish godfather Ed Harris at his old buddy Liam Neeson, the two adversaries facing off over midnight coffee at a New York diner. “As long as you’re coming after Michael,” Neeson later retorts, “I’m coming after you.” The scene is a laughable attempt at evoking the De Niro/Pacino summit in Heat, to be sure, but the gravitas of these two veteran actors excavates something more fascinating: the deep undertow of melancholy that’s been haunting the Liam Neeson genre of late. Like last year’s somber, would-be genre throwback A Walk Among the Tombstones, Run All Night is rich with weariness and regret, a far more ponderous and reflective picture than its title and ticking-clock premise might suggest. It’s not exactly Neeson’s Unforgiven (though that can’t be far away), but it is a movie curiously at odds with itself, dutifully doling out the violent clichés while brooding over the carnage.
Designed as an all-in-one-night jam, a sort-of After Hours by way of Tony Scott, Run All Night pits Neeson’s ex-hitman Jimmy “the Gravedigger” Conlon—an alcoholic, estranged dad, natch—against Harris’ mob paterfamilias Shawn Maguire, after the former guns down the latter’s hothead son in defense of his own. For a first-quarter Liam Neeson action movie, it takes its sweet time to get going, and benefits from it—Neeson and Harris relish the opportunity to establish their childhood friendship and rivalry, even as the respective father-son plots are hamfistedly cut-and-pasted in like so many Photoshopped family photos. There’s even an unexpected, if all-too-brief, moment of comedy in which Neeson recreates Billy Bob Thornton’s whiskey-soaked Bad Santa ( a whole different movie waiting to be made).
Once the gears shift into action mode, however, the film splinters in conflicting directions, and the recursions to tough-guy emotions come off as increasingly corny. Compelled to sate the audience’s appetite for car chases, brawls, and by-the-numbers gunplay, Run All Night has Conlon and son pursued by Irish mobsters, vengeful NYC cops (lead by a very Orson Welles-in-Touch of Evil-esque Vincent D’Onofrio), and a hitman inexplicably played by Common as an ’84-model Terminator. (“He won’t stop til you’re dead,” the younger Conlon warns his wife, the terminally-underused Genesis Rodriguez.)
Run All Night fancies itself a remix of Taken, John Wick and Michael Winner’s Mechanic, with a whole lot of Michael Mann and even a little Abel Ferrara to boot. There’s plenty of appeal to that combination, but the elements don’t always cohere. It’s the kind of film that permits Neeson and Kinnaman to hold a quiet, emotionally charged father-son conversation before jerking across to zoom into a computer-generated alleyway; where the eerie strains of the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” coexist with a Junkie XL score that sounds lifted from the action-movie stock library. There’s fun to be had in those juxtapositions, but there’s a larger sense that the movie would have been more successful had it focused on one thread. There’s an entire movie (in another genre, even) to made of the Common vs. Neeson hunt, for starters, to say nothing of the potential for a boozy buddy comedy between Neeson and Nick Nolte—who shows up mid-film to school everybody on how you do “grizzled” correctly. (And for this writer, at least, a whole film consisting of Neeson stick-shifting his ’80s Camaro in jagged close-ups would do just nicely.)
Of significant pleasure, Collett-Serra and his DP Martin Ruhe have a giddy, kid-in-a-candy-store eye for New York, digitally strafing the boroughs like a vulgar auteurist Google Maps, sending the camera squirreling through brownstone stair rails and firing off oversaturated skyline montages with the speed of a Vine. Many shots unfold within the frame of surveillance screens, and there’s a Raid-like siege in a project block—beautifully strobed by infrared gunsights and helicopter spotlights—that’s a surefire formal highlight. This hyper-modern collage effectively plays off the central characters’ requiem for a time gone by—as Harris remarks to Neeson at one point, “All the old places look different now.” Never is their sense of diminished relevance more evident than in the chaotic, confusing city surrounding them.
Such stylistic brio, when married to the film’s existential dithering, makes Run All Night all the more frustrating for its otherwise routine sequences, of which there are plenty. And while it’s probably ungrateful to hope for more than a well-oiled and reasonably satisfying Neeson joint, perhaps it is time for him to tackle his Unforgiven—or at least wear the Santa suit for Taken 4.