WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
Liam Neeson found new life as an action hero in the “Taken” trilogy. In them, he played Bryan Mills, a retired C.I.A. black ops agent. The franchise was launched by a scenario in which the protagonist’s daughter was kidnapped by Albanian gangsters. They are planning to sell her as a sex slave to a Middle Eastern oil sheik. To avert this dread prospect, Mills would need to reprise his dormant skills as a trained assassin.
A small budget affair, “Taken” was expected to be released straight to video. However, it found a receptive audience in the European market in its 2008 release. When it became a surprise hit, its theatrical release expanded to North America. Ultimately, it grossed $226 million at the box office and spawned two sequels. The artistic quality of the series spiraled progressively downwards. The marketing campaign for “Taken 3” was based on a promise that audiences would not be subjected to any further episodes.
So … is “Run All Night” just a cynical effort to repackage the tired tropes of the “Taken” franchise? It’s an altogether reasonable suspicion. However, it turns out that “Run All Night” jettisons the played out formula of the three “Taken” films.
“Run All Night” crams a fast-paced storyline into a sixteen-hour span. In an introductory framing device, Jimmy Conlon (Neeson) is flat on his back, seemingly shot and dying. In a voice-over, Jimmy reflects, “I’ve done terrible things in my life, things for which I cannot be forgiven.”
The film flashbacks to the prior day, We learn that for decades, Jimmy had been a feared hit-man for Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), a Brooklyn-based crime lord. Growing up together, the two men had forged a close friendship.
Now, Jimmy is haunted by thoughts of the men he has killed and become a pathetic alcoholic. He’s fighting an uphill battle to survive financially and psychologically.
Prodded by Shawn, Jimmy implores his coke-addled son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook), for a loan. Danny agrees to spot him some cash. However, there is one stipulation. Danny subjects Jimmy to the humiliating task of dressing up as Santa Claus at a family affair. It’s more than Jimmy can handle. He gets smashed and falls down drunk at the party.
Meanwhile, we meet Jimmy’s only son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman from the Swedish film, “Snabba Cash,” and the American TV series, “The Killing.”). He’s deeply embittered and estranged from his father. Even though they both live in Brooklyn. Mike studiously avoids contact with his dad. Much to Jimmy’s chagrin, Mike even bars his father from ever meeting his granddaughters.
A former prize-fighter, Mike volunteers at a local gym. There, he mentors Curtis (Aubrey Joseph) a fatherless, young African-American boy, who aspires to become a pugilist. Mike and his emotionally well-grounded wife, Gabrielle (Genesis Rodriguez), are raising two young daughters (Giulia Cicciari, Carrington Meyer). Mike is consumed with not being a negligent, absentee father like he perceives that Jimmy was.
In his job as a chauffeur, Mike transports Victor Grezda (Radivoje Bikvic) an Albanian gangster to Danny’s house. To weasel out of a debt, Danny kills Victor and his sidekick. Mike has the misfortune of witnessing the murder. Danny is about to eliminate Mike. However, Jimmy shows up and preemptively kills Danny.
Now, things go topsy turvy. Aggrieved by his son’s shooting, Shawn demands vengeance in the form of Mike’s death. How will Jimmy sort out his conflicting loyalties? Can Jimmy escape his drunken stupor long enough to recover his faded skills as a gunman? Will Mike even trust his father to help him? A nuanced screenplay by Brad Ingelsby (co-writer of “Out of the Furnace”) does an excellent job of exploring these dynamics. He provides well-drawn characters and resonant dialogue.
“Run All Night” represents a major career uptick for director, Jaume Collet-Serra. He dexterously choreographs the car chases, fight scenes, and other action set pieces. Production values are excellent with stellar contributions by cinematographer, Martin Ruhe; editor, Dirk Westervelt; production designer, Sharon Seymour; and scorer, Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL).
“Run All Night” affords Neeson an opportunity to portray a character, who actually has more than two dimensions. After three “Taken” flicks and several other misfires (we’re looking at you “Third Person,” “Non-Stop”), it was easy to forget that Neeson is an accomplished thespian. His performance in “Run All Night” will serve as a reminder of that salient fact.
Of course, Ed Harris offers great screen presence as Jimmy’s closest friend, now turned antagonist. Remarkably, Harris somehow shot his part in “Run All Night” even as he was performing eight shows a week of “The Jacksonion,” the Broadway play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Beth Henley. What a guy!
The impressive cast also includes Nick Nolte as Jimmy’s brother, Vincent D’Onofrio as a police detective, who has long tried to bring Jimmy to justice; Bruce McGill as Shawn’s right hand man; and Common as an assassin hired to kill Jimmy. Even lesser known actors like Radivoje Bikvic, Genesis Rodriguez, and Aubrey Joseph offer textured performances.
“Run All Night” is much better than a standard issue run and gun flick. It is a top notch Irish-American noir crime drama.
***1/2 R (for strong violence, language including sexual references, and some drug use) 114 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.