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There is a reason that there is a rigid formula for Liam Neeson action films: it has a tendency to hit more than it misses. In RUN ALL NIGHT, the tropes are all present and accounted for with the variations that are permitted within the formula’s rules. Neeson is the everyman with, you will pardon me repeating the phrase, a specific set of skills that can save the day when nothing else can. He’s also reluctant to use them unless absolutely necessary, and, most importantly, he’s a man with emotional baggage that can’t be lifted without a blood price, literal or metaphorical.
This time he’s Jimmy Conlon, former hitman and current derelict of a human being paying for the sins of his lifetime with estrangement from his son, upright citizen and exemplary family man, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), and contempt of his local Irish Mafia that he’s served his whole life. The only bright spot in his life is lifelong friend, Shawn McGuire (Ed Harris), who ran the criminal enterprise until he bowed to the changing times and became a legitimate businessman. All that changes when Shawn’s bad seed of a son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook) runs afoul of Albanian mobsters, and, in one of those twists of fate inherent in films like this, drags Jimmy’s solid, upright son into the mess that he’s made. Danny dies. Jimmy is responsible. Shawn demands the Old Testament eye for an eye. And so begins a very long night as Jimmy tries to keep Michael alive, as well Michael’s wife and two cutie-pie daughters. It’s one long chase punctuated with showdowns between Jimmy and Shawn, belated bonding between Jimmy and Michael, and a détente with the police detective (Vincent D’Onofrio) who has been dogging Jimmy for a quarter of a century. What is key here is the notion that an old drunk can suddenly pull himself together to save his son, and while it’s a stretch as an abstract idea, there is something about Neeson turning from shambling husk to fast-thinking killing machine that makes it seem completely reasonable. He believes it enough for all of us.
There is a great deal of plot to get through here, with Jimmy running from everyone, including a coolly efficient contract killer played with icy determination by Common. Thanks to stylish direction by Jaume Collet-Serra executed with a quiet panache that emphasizes the laconic melancholy of men whose lives lived by an honor code has left them essentially empty, and it is a compelling melancholy that enriches the mayhem beyond the gunfire and explosions into an externalization of inner turmoil. The suspense comes from the complex emotional bonds that are being redefined as the evening progresses. No one conveys that sort of haunted melancholy better than Neeson, particularly playing opposite Kinnaman, whose every move is a walking rebuke to his father’s decisions, even when showing his tender side to wife and kids. As for Harris, he is reliably tough and inflexible, reacting without expending more energy than absolutely necessary, while D’Onofrio is reliably intense in a role that require little more than hitting marks and providing an excuse for exposition for Jimmy.
RUN ALL NIGHT runs a little too long, missing opportunities to tighten sequences before moving to the next revelation/beating. The idea of redemption from a gun barrel or a well-landed punch is not new to the action genre, and it’s certainly something we’ve seen Neeson tackle before, but does that mean we don’t want to see it again?