Like all the best Liam Neeson action/thrillers of late, Run All Night taps into a deep well of depression and sadness. It’s brisk and exciting, but suffused with reluctance, concerned with matters of broken homes and beaten psyches. Neeson brings a certain amount of dignity to these man-of-action roles, a great actor refusing to coast in material others might view as merely paychecks. He can see the tragedy here. It’s a big part of what makes The Grey, Non-Stop, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and the best bits of Taken such crackling entertainments. They’re elevated by solid direction smartly focused on Neeson’s weary gravitas, a man fighting through existential sorrow to do what he feels must be done.
In Run All Night, he plays an alcoholic ex-hit man trying to wrestle with the demons of his past. He’s estranged from his grown son (Joel Kinnaman), who knows the truth about him and has run towards respectability, working two jobs to make ends meet for his young family. When complications arise and the shooting starts, we find ourselves in an exciting actioner about bad dads and shattered sons trying their best to heal understandably troubled relationships. It’s gruff tough-guy poetry, family melodrama through car chases and shootouts, a gripping violent thriller lamenting the difficulties in breaking cycles of violence.
Neeson’s boss (Ed Harris) has a son (Boyd Holbrook) the same age as his. This young man is the opposite of Kinnaman, trying to be even half the gangster his father was. This leads him to killing a rival drug dealer, a crime Kinnaman happens to witness. Talk about your bad coincidences. So Neeson must scramble to save his son as the full weight of his old criminal friends’ organization swings down to silence the witness. This time, it’s personal. Neeson and Kinnaman race around a New York City night, illuminated by scattered thunderstorms to enhance the drama, trying to stay alive. Around seemingly every corner they find crooked cops, trained killers, and old friends who are suddenly, reluctantly, new enemies (an ensemble full of small roles for Bruce McGill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Common, Genesis Rodriguez, and Nick Nolte).
What’s so satisfying about this set-up is the way screenwriter Brad Ingelsby and director Jaume Collet-Serra make the pulp melodrama as crackling as the action. Terrifically tense scenes of suspense and violence turn into moments of interpersonal conflicts, atonement, and reconciliation as great actors sit and work out characters’ problems. Collet-Serra, who has been grinding out clever and blindsiding impactful genre fare for a while now, quietly becoming one of our most reliable B-movie auteurs with the likes of Orphan and Neeson’s aforementioned Non-Stop, makes space in a film of hard-charging grit for quiet emotional beats. These moments in which characters engage in off-the-cuff soul bearing one-on-one exchanges play just as effectively as the hand-to-hand combat, vehicular mayhem, and discharging firearms.
Collet-Serra’s camera swoops through New York streets, connecting scenes with a CGI Google Street View aesthetic, but Anton Corbijn collaborator Martin Ruhe’s cinematography settles into dancing grain crisply cut together by editor Dirk Westervelt. The filmmakers know how to make a weighty action contraption look great and really move. It starts slow, but once it takes off it builds an irresistible momentum grounded in slick crime drama stoicism, the kind that has as much fun conjuring the dread of violence as the act itself. Whether we're running through an evacuating apartment building tracking multiple deadly cat-and-mouse games, or sitting behind a curtain hoping a bad guy won't think to look there, the film builds its tension out of what might happen, even as it gets satisfaction setting off the fireworks when happenings do erupt.
There’s a moral gravity here, of a deadly sort, that emphasizes the terror as well as the thrill. The filmmakers are wise to key into Neeson’s form, the weariness and grief conjured up by a slump of his shoulders, or in a soft gravely sigh. He’s playing a man clearly skilled in the art of effective violence, and yet can now only summon up the power to put those skills to use to protect those he loves. It’s a dependable formula, and in the hands of such skilled practitioners of the craft, it’s a fine example of its type.