Middle-aged men with a particular skillset have found their patron saint in Liam Neeson. Luckily, a distinctive visual style and some added character detailing keep Run All Night running smoother than most of its sluggish brethren. There’s certainly nothing new here, but this slick little film dispenses its thrills and kills with surprising effectiveness.
Reconciling family with professional loyalty can get pretty confusing for a hit-man. Jimmy Conlon (Neeson) might have gotten out of the game years ago, but it takes a constant influx of booze to silence the cries of his victims. His guilt tsunami is further stoked by an ill-advised decision to choose the company of his lifelong friend and boss, Shawn (Ed Harris), over raising his own son Mike (Joel Kinnaman). Not surprisingly, Mike hates his absentee father, even forbidding him from meeting his wife and young children. When fate traps Mike in the middle of Shawn’s bloody business, however, it will take Jimmy’s expertise to get him through the night alive.
One reason why Run All Night works while most Neeson action vehicles fail is the extra layer of family dynamics. Not only do we get the friction between Jimmy and his son, we get the ideological divide between Shawn, an old-fashioned criminal who specializes in smaller scores, and his reckless son Danny (Boyd Holbrook), who wants to impress his old man by landing some serious ice. Jimmy and Shawn, too, have a brotherly dynamic that adds extra tension to an already explosive situation. “Wherever we’re going when we cross that line,” Shawn says to a desolated Jimmy, “we’re going together.” True, we’ve seen all of these scenarios before in much better films, but the added character complications keep us invested long after the plot has lost steam.
More importantly, director Jaume Collet-Serra understands that this heavily-trodden territory needs a fresh visual approach to keep things moving. There’s the usual jump cuts and shaky-cam that you’ve come to expect from action-thrillers, but we also get lots of interesting angles and flourishes to enhance the sense of movement. One bravura sequence finds Neeson chasing a police car through the busy streets of Queens. The camera moves seamlessly inside and outside of speeding cars in a fit of visual trickery that will have you scratching your head in amazement. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe does his part to keep things moving, also, as his camera zooms around the New York City skyline like Spider-Man on a zip line.
The script by Brad Ingelsby gets a bit sluggish in the last third, but it juggles the family elements and criminal enterprise reasonably well. Rather than being a full sprint of chaos and mayhem, Run All Night is like a steady jog, occasionally interrupted by sudden bursts of brutal violence and quiet character moments. Ingelsby handles the scenes between Neeson and Harris particularly well, making their brotherhood both believable and dramatically effective. Stories about the “good old days” and lost comrades give their relationship a palpable sense of history. The one major misstep from Ingelsby’s script comes in the creation of Mr. Price (Common); a paid assassin who ends up ‘out murdering’ everyone in his attempt to murder Neeson. Bringing in an outsider undermines this otherwise intimate web of emotional scar tissue. It also necessitates an overly long finale that feels tonally at odds with the rest of the film.
Collet-Serra and Neeson have teamed up on several occasions, most recently in 2014’s shakes-on-a-plane thriller, Non-Stop. He has a knack for drawing the best out of an often disinterested Neeson. Working with Ed Harris, too, seems to get Neeson’s blood up, if for no other reason than to match Harris’ natural intensity. Vincent D’Onofrio adds a workmanlike presence in the ‘last honest cop’ role, and it’s always nice to see D-Day (Bruce McGill), even if his throat playing days are a distant memory.
Given Neeson’s spotty track record of late, Run All Night works better than you might expect. Effective action set pieces co-mingled with family melodrama should keep things interesting for the uninitiated, and fans of the genre will find plenty to like. If you don’t want to get caught crying at Cinderella, this is a suitably macho alternative.