Like most things in our universe, Run All Night would have been better off if Taken had never existed. In the seven short years since that film was released, it has become an unwritten rule that all Neeson roles must play off the Bryan Mills persona in one way or another. Even if the film is not related at all, it will definitely be marketed as such. (This is what happened to The Grey.) It’s particularly unfortunate in this case because while the action sequences in Run All Night feel forced and unsatisfying, there’s a strong drama and a potentially great Neeson performance getting squandered here.
Neeson plays former mob hitman Jimmy Conlon, now living out a meager existence financed primarily by the generosity of his oldest friend and former employer Shawn McGuire (Ed Harris). When Jimmy’s estranged son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) witnesses a murder committed by Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook), Jimmy is forced back into Michael’s life, eventually murdering Danny in order to save Michael’s life. The two are tossed together throughout the night as Jimmy attempts to spare Michael and his family from Shawn’s wrath.
It’s interesting that Neeson plays Jimmy as a washed-up old drunk far removed from any form of connections beyond the man who made him that way. It’s a sort of deconstruction of what a person like Bryan Mills would eventually become, overwhelmed with regret and revealed to be a danger to his loved ones. The pivotal relationship here is not the one between father and son, as the film wants you to believe, but the one between two old friends split by their past actions. The dialogue between Harris and Neeson is key, but their moments feel like they’re held on a leash, as though both men really want to tear into these characters, but something in the script is holding them back.
A particularly interesting point occurs when Jimmy calls Shawn immediately after shooting Danny so he can confess. “You know how this has got to end?” Shawn asks. “Yeah, I know.”, Jimmy replies. Similar to the brilliantly simple “Oh.” conversation from the great John Wick, this is a well-written character moment between two men who have resigned themselves to how they know the rest of their very bad night is going to be.
I wouldn’t be so down on Run All Night as an action film, except that the action sequences are mainly poorly shot and generic. Fueled by shaky-cam and mostly relegated to darkened, cramped areas, they lack artistry and feel mostly forced. The film tries to give Jimmy a worthy adversary in younger hitman Andrew Price (Common), but we spend so little time with him that he’s never permitted to grow into the Terminator-like unstoppable force the film clearly wants him to be. Actual action is an afterthought in this action film, further demonstrating my theory that the film was re-written the instant Neeson signed on.
However, Run All Night is surprisingly satisfying when it works on its own terms. Outside of the fight scenes, the cinematography is solid and creative. The relations between Kinnaman and Neeson work very well, if a little one-note, and the inevitable showdown between Shawn and Jimmy is satisfying… but there’s still 25 minutes of film after that. Run All Night is a movie buried by its own excesses, and based on Liam Neeson’s recent announcement that he’s leaving action films in a few years, everyone’s starting to recognize it.
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