Over the past seven years, Liam Neeson has helped redefine the action movie. With his boxer’s features and his sandpaper voice, Mr. Neeson, now 62, has long been known for his intense performances.
Since the unexpected success of “Taken” in 2008, which featured him as a growling, brutal enforcer out to rescue his kidnapped daughter, Mr. Neeson has earned a place as one of Hollywood’s top-flight action stars. In doing so, he has reshaped the action movie around his character, strengths and particular interests.
Thanks in part to his influence, action films — especially those produced on modest budgets and released outside of the summer movie season — have become darker, gruffer, more intense and even, in some ways, more elderly. They are movies about guns and violence, of course, and they tend to feature plenty of action.
But they are also movies suffused with sadness, loss and regret, as well as an acute sense of the passage of time.
“Run All Night” is the latest example. Although it is not the best of Mr. Neeson’s recent entries into the action canon, it may be the most representative.
Once again, it casts him in the role of an aging enforcer: This time, he’s a former mob hit man named Jimmy Conlon, better known as the “Gravedigger.” He is no longer a killer, but a drunken, sad-sack servant anguished about his life and kept on the payroll only because of his intimate connection with his former boss, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris).
But when Conlon kills Maguire’s no-good son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) to save the life of his own son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), the long history between the two older men is quickly blown away.
Maguire turns his considerable mob might against the two Conlons, essentially sending the whole of New York City after them. The story then becomes one of survival: It’s Jimmy and Mike against the world — but mostly Jimmy.
The movie’s action/chase scenario is deeply familiar, and the screenplay, by Brad Ingelsby, does little to upend basic expectations. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed Mr. Neeson in “Non-Stop” and “Unknown,” handles the various action sequences with dutiful competence, although none is particularly memorable.
The entire production is shot with a high-contrast grit that seems designed to recall the great New York crime movies of the 1970s, an ambition that goes mostly unmet.
Instead, the movie belongs to Mr. Neeson and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Harris. Watching these two old hands face off — as friends and then as enemies — is the film’s great pleasure, and I wish the movie had given them more opportunities to do so.
The dialogue they are given isn’t great, but together they fashion it into something serviceable and, with their growled line readings, suggest a rich, shared life history.
That sense of history, of a life lived and, perhaps, regretted, flows through Mr. Neeson’s performance, as it does in so many of his roles now.
Although he is known mostly for his snarling menace, it is this mournful sensibility that is his true contribution to today’s action films. His very presence, which carries with it a gravelly emotional heft, makes these otherwise generic genre films seem older and wiser.
It’s not enough to transform an essentially disposable action movie like “Run All Night” into something truly memorable, but it’s enough to make it watchable and even enjoyable at times.
Yes, it’s still a predictable shoot-‘em-up, but thanks to Mr. Neeson, it’s one with a soul.
TITLE: “Run All Night”
CREDITS: Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; screenplay by Brad Ingelsby
RATING: R for violence, language
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS