“Run All Night” is now playing at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinemas. R, 1:55, three stars out of four.
At this point, the question is not whether Liam Neeson will kick ass, but what sort of ass he will kick. Albanian ass, as in “Taken”? German ass, as in “Unknown”? Midair ass, as in “Non-Stop”?
Or Irish-American ass, as in his latest action thriller “Run All Night,” although “Run” takes some pains to worry about things like acting, characterization and texture. Why, it’s almost a full hour before the first ass gets kicked.
Neeson is Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Conlon, former button man for New York crime boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). While Shawn has built himself up into an affluent and respectable man on his ill-gotten gains, Jimmy wallows in alcoholism and self-loathing over the men he killed for Shawn. Most of Neeson’s action heroes start off at rock bottom, but seeing the big man wrapped in a tatty blanket in his freezing apartment, or humiliating himself playing Santa at Shawn’s Christmas party to earn a few bucks, is truly and surprisingly pathetic.
Jimmy’s straight-arrow son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), an ex-boxer turned limo driver, won’t have anything to do with his old man. But when Jimmy accidentally witnesses a murder committed by Shawn’s hothead son Danny (Robert Boyd Holbrook), and Jimmy has to kill Danny to protect Michael, the estranged father and son are thrown together. The grieving Shawn wants them both dead, and the pair have to hit the streets to stay ahead of Shawn’s foot soldiers, cops both corrupt and crusading, and a mysterious assassin known only as Price (Common).
To their credit, screenwriter Brad Inglesby (“Out of the Furnace”) and director Jaume Collet-Serra (who also made “Unknown” and “Non-Stop” with Neeson) take that first hour or so to establish the characters and their relationships, rather than jumping right into the carnage. The relationship between Jimmy and Danny seems authentically fraught, and I really liked the suggestion of a long friendship between Jimmy and Shawn, and how Neeson and Harris’ scenes together walk a knife edge between menace and familiarity, sharing their regret even as they trade threats.
Then we shift into action mode, and “Run All Night” is pretty good at that, eschewing showy 21st-century cinematic flourishes (aside from an annoying “swoosh-cam” that takes us from one end of New York to the other) for rough-and-tumble violence. As the cat-and-mouse game goes from subway stations to housing projects to abandoned trainyards, “Run All Night” is obviously influenced by gritty urban entertainments of the 1970s — half the characters in the movie still have corded landlines.
The supporting cast is full of welcome if grizzled character-actor faces, including Vincent D’onofrio as a detective who has been trying to nail Jimmy for decades, Bruce McGill as Shawn’s loyal right-hand man, and a surprise uncredited cameo by the granddaddy of all grizzled character actors, who shall not be named. The only flat note is struck by Common, whose fastidious hitman seems excessively affected, right down to his laser-vision monocle.
There’s a tension between the tense character drama elements and the rock’em sock’em action elements in “Run All Night,” and the two never quite co-exist easily together. Neeson seems a little bored by the fighting and shooting, but seems to relish the chance to really act. But there’s enough good stuff in both halves to keep an audience entertained, until the next time Neeson has need of his very particular set of skills.