Liam Neeson may have been a late-blooming action star, but if “Honest Thief” is the best he can muster now, those days are now behind him. As Tom, a notorious bank robber with a conscience, Neeson does his best with the material at hand, but he can only do so much when it reduces everything around him to a bland formulaic exercise.
Directed by “Ozark” co-creator Mark Williams, the movie lacks the sense of unpredictability from the hit Netflix show, where a high-stakes criminal enterprise endangers one family’s long-term future. That happens, here, too — but in much more familiar terms. Williams and co-writer Steve Allrich have constructed your typical tale of personal vindication, spreading it across a formulaic saga that teems with the expected mano-a-mano skirmishes, and by-the-numbers car chases, while centering it all on one man’s mission to make things right for the sake of (what else?) a romantic entanglement.
While “Honest Thief” starts out as the story of a bad guy looking to do good, it eventually shrugs off that premise for a more typical man-on-the-lam setup. Dubbed the “In and Out Bandit,” Neeson’s Tom is a meticulous Boston thief who has stolen millions from banks while managing to keep his identity a secret. He doesn’t particularly like the nickname, but after he falls in love with the vivacious Annie (Kate Walsh), he decides to make a fresh start by coming clean to her. Instead of simply returning the millions he stole, Tom contacts the FBI, offering to turn himself in and give back the stash he stole over the years, in return for what he hopes will be a lighter sentence. It all seems to be going to according to plan — until he’s double-crossed by a pair of corrupt FBI agents (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) who frame him for murder.
There’s little to distinguish the ensuing conflict from scores of other B-grade action-thrillers, except that this one stars Neeson as a former marine and demolitions expert, which is a solid selling point given his track record for elevating this kind of pulpy material. At times, Neeson’s investment in the role hints at something meatier around the corner, and he brings a notable gravitas to a part that keeps the movie watchable even during its most contrived twists.
By now, however, this itself has become something of a routine: another opportunity to watch Neeson run-and-gun his way out of a jam, in a humorless scenario devoid of any big reveals. If one actor can define a franchise, this one has peaked.
Even so, Neeson outshines much of the mediocrity around him, including Walsh’s underdeveloped Annie, whose half-hearted performance makes it hard to invest in the developing stakes. It’s a wonder she doesn’t flee when she learns that that man she loves has been lying to her about his past. (Then again, he’s so good at spinning his path to redemption that of course she falls for it.)
Neeson is certainly persistent, and it’s obvious that he is uncomfortable with the violence he inflicts on others. But he’s still quite the efficient killer, and when the movie lets him loose, it can be fun to watch him unleash his rage.
But only to a point. There have been better versions of this scenario throughout film history — think Jules Dassin’s 1949 noir “Thieves’ Highway” — and “Honest Thief” can’t seem to escape their shadow. The movie has an indistinctive lo-fi look, and unfolds against the rather tired milieu of a gritty city overwhelmed by corruption.
At least the backstory has some modern-day resonance. An apparent Vietnam veteran who returned to a broken home, Tom explains his sob story as the result of his father losing his job over corporate embezzlement. Frustrated with the one-percent, Tom decided to steal from it. Think “Occupy Wall Street” by way of “Robin Hood” — the ultimate warrior-for-the-little-guy plot. On paper, that pitch may have sounded appealing 10 years ago, when Neeson was in the throes of his new chapter as escapist centerpiece. These days, however, that concept alone can’t salvage a movie far beneath his talents. “Honest Thief” may have missed its moment, but at least it captures the appeal of Neeson’s action stardom, and provides a welcome excuse to return to better examples.
Open Road Films will release “Honest Thief” in select theaters on Friday, October 16.
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