Man, you’d think that gangsters would have learned not to mess with Liam Neeson’s kids by now, right?
Run All Night finds the actor walking an increasingly well-trodden path: playing a middle-aged man with “a very particular set of skills,” a beaten-up leather jacket, a Beretta and a son in mortal peril. This week’s Bryan Mills happens to be named Jimmy Conlon, a former hitman for an Irish-American mob in New York.
We first meet Jimmy as a pitiable boozehound, derisively mocked by the denizens of his local pub for farting in his sleep. He was once feared as the blunt instrument of mob boss and childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), but the subsequent years haven’t been so kind. Guilt for the death he wrought weighs heavily on his shoulders, mixed with a dash of low-level misery at his surviving family hating his guts. Things come to a head after his son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) accidentally witnesses a series of murders by Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), Shawn’s son.
Soon, estranged father and son are squeezed between the twin pincers of bloodthirsty gangsters and the corrupt NYPD, with each bent on matching the other’s sadism over one night of carnage in the Big Apple. From there it’s your typical action parade of crashing cars, bashing thugs through toilet walls, jumping from burning buildings, tense confrontations in disused train yards and moody woodland shootouts.
You’ve probably realized by now that Run All Night isn’t going to be winning any awards for ambitious storytelling; this tale of an over-the-hill action man forcing himself through one last job to save his family is so cookie-cutter that if it were re-branded as Taken 4, no one would bat an eyelid. Fortunately, though the film is narratively old hat, it’s at least competently assembled. Neeson, while not particularly stretching himself, finds this beaten-up hitman’s empathetic core. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, after all. Making a hero of a self-confessed murderer who’s escaped justice isn’t obviously palatable, no matter how bad he feels about his past.
Neeson’s performance jumps up a few notches in some fantastic scenes opposite Harris. Their interactions aren’t quite De Niro and Pacino in Heat, but there’s an extra-narrative whizz and crack when these two master craftsmen bounce off one another, ending up in a fraternal relationship that’s tender even when they’re trying to murder one another.
Shoring up the rest of the cast is a believably frazzled Kinnaman; Common, who’s apparently channeling The Wire‘s Brother Mouzone; Vincent D’Onofrio as the one honest cop in town; and, marvellously, a one scene wonder uncredited cameo from none other than Nick Nolte.
The film is further elevated by some straightforwardly beautiful photography by Martin Ruhe, frequent collaborator of Anton Corbijn. Obvious care has been taken to accentuate the grunginess of New York, which has a mosaic of slickly wet asphalt, blurred neon lights, steam rising from sewer grates and towering gothic architecture. Standout visual sequences include an exciting French Connection-style low-angled car chase and a forest shootout that closes the film. Furthermore, peppered through the movie are handheld establishing shots, as if director and DP had walked the streets together and spontaneously shot whatever caught their eye. These all add up to a nicely executed ‘New York Noir’ aesthetic that certainly adds to the film.
Another pleasant surprise is that director Jaume Collet-Serra tosses in a glimmer of politics. Throughout Run All Night, there are interstitial shots of poverty; miserable looking people sitting on the curb, loading junk into the back of shopping carts or just blankly staring into space. These keep the high-octane action firmly bolted to a documentarian ‘real’. Further clues as to the political positioning of the film come when our heroes approach some stereotypically threatening-looking black youths loitering in the projects. As they ask for help locating someone, there’s a palpable beat of suspense, and then the youths oblige with directions.
Similarly, the scariest moment of the film involves Kinnaman’s character calling the police for help. While handcuffed in the back of a police car, we see the officers putting out an APB for a man matching his description, warning their colleagues that he’s armed and violent. A cold shiver runs down the spine when you see just how easy it’d be for a pair of corrupt cops to kill whoever they wanted under the pretense of “self defence.” The political element here might not be much more than a background hum, but I appreciate that it’s there at all.
Run All Night is far from a straightforwardly excellent movie. Tight adherence to genre conventions, a staid narrative and structural familiarity prevent it from rising too far above being anything more than just “good.” But this is a genre film made by a cast and crew who care enough about their craft to make the best damn genre film they can. It’d have been real easy to phone this project in, and I’m definitely glad that they didn’t.
It doesn't break any new ground, but Run All Night is still a decent entry into the increasingly crowded "Liam Neeson in a leather jacket saving his kid from gangsters" genre.