The “Taken” films might have been responsible for repositioning former serious actor Liam Neeson as an action movie heavyweight, but there has been a far more interesting creative collaboration brewing in that same time span between the actor and frequent collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra. What makes this collaboration so interesting (and, indeed, fun to watch) is the way that Collet-Serra reinforces Neeson’s new career path while simultaneously deconstructing it. In “Unknown,” he turned the normally heroic Neeson into an amnesiac terrorist, and in “Non-Stop” he crafted an Agatha Christie-like whodunit on an airplane, with Neeson as an unlikely foil: a dirty, disillusioned air marshal. Their latest collaboration is “Run All Night,” a film that double-underlines the fact that Collet-Serra knows exactly what to do with Neeson’s on-screen persona in what is ultimately their most satisfying film yet.
At the beginning of “Run All Night,” Collet-Serra goes out of his way to establish what a fuck-up Neeson’s Jimmy Conlon is. He used to be an enforcer for a heavy-hitting New York mob boss named Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), but has fallen on hard times. These days he’s a broke drunk, forced to beg for a loan from Shawn’s snot-nosed son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook), while estranged from his own son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), a former boxer and current chauffeur. When Mike accidentally witnesses Danny execute some Eastern European drug dealers, Danny goes to Mike’s house to murder him. Jimmy intervenes, kills Danny to save Mike, and the estranged father and son have to go on the run for one very long night, dodging killers and thugs and crooked cops along the way.
Part of what makes “Run All Night” such an exhilarating thrill is the fact that it was actually filmed in New York. Not only does this add some oomph to a number of exciting action set pieces, including a jaw-dropping car chase that tips its hat to “The French Connection” and a sequence set at a high rise tenement building that escalates to a nearly unbearable fervor, but it also gives the movie’s smaller, slower beats more gritty authenticity. There are moments when little glimpses of the city flash by: a taxi driver shooting down Broadway or a homeless man going through the garbage looking for plastic bottles. “Run All Night” may exist in a heightened, noir-ish world where a straight arrow detective (Vincent D’Onofrio) slides into a diner booth right next to the mob enforcer he’s been hunting for decades, but there is still texture that at least somewhat grounds it in the real world. There’s grit underneath its fingernails. Collet-Serra also adds additional stakes by factoring in things like a championship hockey game, which gives context for the night and something that the action can play alongside and interact with. “Run All Night” is smartly constructed, inside and out.
Harris and Neeson’s performances do a lot to ground the movie, as well. Early on it’s established that these guys came up in the mafia together and have grown apart over the years. But there’s still a nearly familial bond there, since they’re both bound by secrets and misdeeds. Harris may relish the chance at playing a mobster but his performance is far from over-the-top, and Collet-Serra and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby allow for somber moments that you normally don’t see in this kind of big budget genre fare, like a particularly devastating sequence where Harris goes to the morgue to identify his son’s body. It’s an unexpectedly powerful moment and one that establishes that the movie isn’t just out for empty thrills, but something deeper and darker too.
Neeson, for his part, is given the difficult task of conveying just what a disaster his Jimmy Conlon is, but still being able to outwit dozens of goons that are sent after him (the deadliest of which is a fastidious assassin played by Common). Neeson doesn’t make the transition easy; he doesn’t just tap into a file in his brain and once again become a highly skilled killer. Instead, he gives the impression that he’s been in the game so long, and knows the neighborhoods and relationships that govern those neighborhoods so well, that he can slip in and out of dangerous situations and still manage to not get himself or his son killed. It’s a tricky part and Neeson handles it with his typical mixture of masculine bravado and understated subtlety.
This is where the sweet spot of the Collet-Serra/Neeson relationship is forged: in the fact that Neeson is presented as a potentially fallible hero, a man who has to build himself up, who has to struggle through demons both internal and external, to reestablish himself and his relationship with his son. He is not the invincible hero that so many lesser filmmakers have tried to make him out to be, and you can tell that Neeson relishes the opportunity to give the character shading and dimension. This is an intentional deconstruction, but one that plays alongside a celebration of what Neeson does best, with countless moments that play up his lumbering physicality, effortless cool, and steadfast moral fortitude. Neeson has such inherent charisma that even when he’s a son-of-a-bitch you can’t help but love him. What the Collet-Serra collaborations do so well is build up the unpleasantness of the character so well that it takes a while to get at the character’s inner goodness. And that’s the journey of “Run All Night.”
While “Run All Night” might be ten minutes too long (and the score by Junkie XL utterly forgettable), it’s still an undeniably hardboiled work of crime fiction. Collet-Serra is an accomplished filmmaker, full of visual bravado to match Neeson’s toughness (there are some great moments where the camera zooms through an impossible amount of space, squeezing in through chain link fences or behind doors), and his work with Neeson remains one of the more exciting collaborations in mainstream cinema. “Run All Night” is their best film by a considerable margin, one in which big action set pieces are nicely tempered by smaller emotional beats, and where Neeson’s action star role is disassembled before soaring to new heights. [B+]