If one can forgive the fact that it’s just a little too similar to just about anything else Liam Neeson had headlined in the past few years aside from the Taken films, Run All Night is a fairly entertaining film. It’s predictable, sure, but it has some riveting dramatic moments, particularly those that feature Neeson and Ed Harris facing off, and its car chases and action sequences are for the most part cleverly conceived and well executed. It’s solid, pot-boiler fare made somewhat forgettable by the fact that Neeson makes one or two films a year of this ilk nowadays, and thus after a while they all start to blend together.
This time, Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a one-time enforcer for New York Irish mob boss Shawn Maguire (Harris). The two men are lifelong friends, guys who grew up together in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, worked their way into the mob together, and watched each other’s backs as Maguire built his organization and established himself as the go-to guy for things you needed done that couldn’t be done through legal channels. But the criminal life has taken its toll on them, each in different ways. It’s left Jimmy sleepless and wallowing in booze most of the time, haunted by the faces of the people he’s killed and the wife and son he turned his back on in favor of his “work family”, while Shawn has spent years taking his business legit and trying to care for his family, including his ill-tempered, entitled, and ambitious son Danny (Boyd Holbrook).
Jimmy’s son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), meanwhile, has grown up trying to be everything that his father wasn’t. Devoted father of two with a third on the way with his wife Gabriela (Genesis Rodriguez), working a legit job as a limo driver, mentoring neighborhood kids at the community gym, Michael wants nothing more than to be the polar opposite of what Jimmy was in his life: absent at best. Father and son don’t speak at all, and that’s just the way Michael wants it.
All that changes in one night when Michael drives a pair of clients to a meeting and then witnesses Danny execute one of them when the meeting goes south and the guns start firing. Michael then becomes a target, and Jimmy, looking to protect what little real family he has left, puts himself in harm’s way to keep his son safe. Jimmy’s actions, in turn, put him square in the sights of Shawn, who in addition to his hired goons sends his most lethal contract killer, Price (Common), after his former friend. Oh, and the police, some of them on Shawn’s payroll, others believing Michael guilty by association with Jimmy, are after them both as well, led by one Detective Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio), who’s been trying to put Jimmy behind bars for most of his career.
The chase takes all the interested parties through all of New York boroughs, through its subway tunnels, traffic-congested streets, elevated train platforms and cramped, labyrinthine apartment complexes as Jimmy tries to keep Michael alive long enough for them to reach evidence that can save them both. That path to safety would be tough enough were father and son on good terms, but of course, that simply isn’t the case, and the two are forced to find a way to trust one another if they want to stay a step ahead of everyone out to get them.
There are lots of very justifiable reasons why Run All Night might be easily confused with quite a few of Liam Neeson’s other recent films. It marks the third film collaboration between him and director Jaume Collet-Serra, the first two being 2011’s Unknown and last year’s Non-Stop. In particular, this new film bears some similarities to Non-Stop, most notably Neeson playing a gun-toting, booze-soaked character with a checkered past. Also, Neeson recently headlined A Walk Among the Tombstones, also set in New York City and also playing a character with alcohol-issues, though in that film he’s got a much firmer grasp on them. And finally, there are all those Taken films, which really should have stopped after the first one, but just kept on making money thanks to Neeson reliably and believably playing that gun-toting unstoppable badass with the unique set of skills, the success of which has opened the door to an entirely new sub-genre of action thrillers starring leading men aged 50 and up.
There, thankfully, the similarities stop. Working from a very grounded, straight-forward script by Brad Inglesby (Out of the Furnace), and shot inventively to best utilize New York’s brightly-lit, frenetic, and often claustrophobic environments, Run All Night doesn’t seek to entertain with over-the-top set pieces and convoluted plot twists. Collet-Serra and his crew instead give us old-school style car chases, wince-evoking fight scenes, and an emotionally-charged story fraught with conflicting concepts and ideologies regarding family and loyalty. Mob family loyalty, fathers and sons and how damaging those relationships can be when a father is absent or all-too-present, guilt and redemption, all of it plays out here in the breaths between the bullets and fists flying, and again, for the most part, it all works and it’s all internally consistent.
What helps the film a great deal here also is its casting, as the always-strong Ed Harris brings just the right gravely gravitas to the role of Shawn and thus makes for a formidable presence on-screen opposite Neeson. The friendship of the two characters, their loyalty to each other and how that bond is severed once it comes down to the fates of their children, is central to the film’s emotional impact, and the two veteran performers bring their A-games in order to help audiences buy in. Kinnaman, as well, provides a strong turn here as a father on his own journey, and D’Onofrio, in a rare, somewhat understated performance, channels a bit of Tommy Lee Jones’ U.S. Marshall Gerard in his dogged determination to Jimmy down.
The only questionable casting to be found here is that of Common, whose talents as an actor were on full display recently in Selma, but who is terribly underutilized here as Price. Apparently conceptualized in the script as the modern-day, conscience-free version of Jimmy, on-screen the character comes to “life” with about as much personality as Robert Patrick’s T1000 killing machine in Terminator 2. The part is robotic and practically mute, and thus plays against Common’s strengths as a performer. It also feels entirely superfluous to the film, as aside from Price being yet another interested party chasing Jimmy and Michael, he has no real connection to the most relevant aspects of the story.
All that said, Run All Night is hardly “must-see” material this weekend. Go see it if you’re a fan of the stars or this type of film, but otherwise, save it for a rental, maybe on Father’s Day.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Run All Night
Starring Liam Neeson, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Nolte, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez, with Common and Ed Harris. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Running Time: 114 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, language including sexual references, and some drug use.