At this point in his career, having spent many years extracting loved ones from the clutches of Albanian sex traffickers, nefarious Euro thugs, terrorist cells, and witless screenwriters, it's hard to imagine Liam Neeson doing a romantic comedy, a biopic, a historical drama - anything that doesn't involve head-butting bad guys and locking his hangdog gaze onto the sadistic fiends who think they've got the upper hand.
They don't, of course.
In Run All Night, Neeson is yet again called upon to rescue an offspring - this time, his estranged, grown-up son, played by The Killing's Joel Kinnaman. Neeson is Jimmy Conlon, a hit man for Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), who has made his fortune running drugs, prostitutes, and who-knows-what, but who now sees himself as a legitimate businessman. In case you have difficulty determining these gentlemen's ethnicity, Conlon wears an Eire tattoo on his arm, and Maguire chews on his words like he's understudying Marlon Brando's Don Corleone - if Corleone had been christened in the waters of the Liffey and weaned on Guinness and soda bread.
It's modern-day Queens, N.Y., but these two mugs may as well be living in another century, with their misty-eyed memories of running guns for the IRA and ordering up fancy lobster at a Times Square restaurant. Ah, the good old days.
But things have turned bad in Run All Night, a grim, jumpy noir that makes Neeson's grim, jumpy Matt Scudder movie, A Walk Among the Tombstones, look like a walk in the park. Set on a cold, slashing-rain night before Christmas, the movie begins with Jimmy looking dead to the world, splayed on a rustic patch of turf with blood gushing from his bullet holes.
"I've done terrible things in my life," his voice-over says as the camera hovers overhead, affording us the chance to study Neeson's body for any sign of life.
Indeed, Conlon has killed a bunch of people during his long tenure as Maguire's muscle. Now he's haunted by what he's done, and hurt that his son, Mike Conlon, a limo driver by trade and a pretty good fighter - judging by the way the folks at John's Boxing Gym look at him - wants nothing to do with his pop.
Then, Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed Neeson in the amnesia thriller Unknown, swoops back 16 hours to trace the bloody, crazy turn of events that leads to Jimmy's lying in the dirt, dying. These events include the murder of a couple of heroin-dealing Albanians (yes, the go-to baddies of our time) and then the killing of Shawn Maguire's son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook). Why Warner Bros. decided to release Run All Night now instead of on Father's Day, I just don't get.
It's not long before everyone - the grieving, vengeance-seeking Maguire, the precinct detective (Vincent D'Onofrio) who's long been pressuring Jimmy to 'fess up to the crimes that gave him the nickname "the Gravedigger," and a contract killer (Common) who wears glasses and a trenchcoat - goes tearing after Jimmy and Mike. And Jimmy and Mike get to do some belated father-son bonding between the crashing car chases and automatic weapons fire.
Run All Night isn't dull. The pace is breakneck, and necks get broken. But the violence is relentless, ugly, unredeemed by any real humanity. The humanity here is steeped in tumblers of booze and phony sorrow, the gangland cliches as thick as steaks. The kind of steaks that maybe you'd want to carve into and eat, but then when you do, you regret everything about them - the blood, the meat, the taste of death.
Run All Night ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. With Liam Neeson, Joel Kinnaman, Ed Harris, Vincent D'Onofrio, Common. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Parent's guide: R (intense violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.EndText