In Run All Night, his third collaboration with genre whiz Jaume Collet-Serra, Liam Neeson mostly keeps physical exertion at a low boil, confining his acts of retribution to straight handgun shots. With the veteran actor’s action-hero athleticism clearly dwindling upon each new release, Collet-Serra has proven the canniest illuminator of the auxiliary charms that continue to fuel Neeson’s pulp rebirth: an aura of world-weariness that treats the business of violence as a mere pain in the ass for an ailing body, a prevailing clumsiness that’s nonetheless upstaged in the heat of battle by sheer will, and a herculean ability to imbue even the most trite dialogue (of which Run All Night has a surplus) with a feeling of hardened gravitas. That may just sound like a run-off of the familiar characteristics of the late-career Neeson persona, but Collet-Serra’s gift is in deploying these traits into new contexts with each film, thus envisioning again and again his star as a playful tweak on the same formula.
As Jimmy Conlon, a whiskey drinker saddled with the regrets of a life in ruthless crime, Neeson has the privilege of performing at least one behavior that’s novel in his career: boasting about his dick size to a colleague’s wife. That’s the kind of burnout Neeson is playing here. He smokes, he swears, and he kills—a behavioral pattern that has alienated him from his working-class son, Mike (a monotonously brooding Joel Kinnaman). Jimmy’s contract murders come courtesy of his involvement with Irish mob kingpin and best friend Shaun Maguire (Ed Harris). Dormant family tensions erupt when Jimmy kills Shaun’s heroine-dealing son (Boyd Holbrook) to defend his own, and the ensuing manhunt occupies a menacing niche of warring crime lords that recalls King of New York, with Shaun’s many connections throughout the city—including a Google Glass-sporting Common as a relentless bounty hunter—showing no mercy in trampling over an already corrupt police force. This citywide skirmish consumes the condensed nocturnal timeframe implied by the film’s title, but the script’s real focus is its turgid sins-of-the-father tract, within which Neeson gets his meatiest bits of psychologically conflicted work.
Sadly, this time around, in spotlighting his star’s fatigued charisma, Collet-Serra’s formidable filmmaking chops have plateaued. Run All Night deals in slick professionalism (DP Martin Ruhe brought similarly peerless craft to Anton Corbjin’s first two features), but it’s short on the formalist surprises that have animated Collet-Serra’s B-movie career thus far. Alongside the shifty subjective camerawork and mirror-play of Unknown or the three-dimensional text message windows of Non-Stop, Run All Night’s visual gimmick—hyper-detailed Fincherian aerial glides that connect the film’s disparate Big Apple locations—is comparatively banal and inconsistently deployed. Low-key dialogue scenes often feel over-produced, such as the superfluous 360-degree pirouette around an already tense back and forth between Harris and Neeson, and though Run All Night showcases an equal fondness for cars peeling out in tight traffic, the film’s frantic car chase set piece pales in comparison to its rhythmically graceful predecessor in Unknown.
But Collet-Serra’s not one to write off as another Tinseltown layman just yet. He remains a director of lean, crafty populist fare, as well as one with recurring interests. As in Non-Stop, justice is ultimately decided in Run All Night through the mediating empiricism of consumer-grade digital imagery, an endpoint that underscores the visual emphasis in these films on cellphones, small cameras, and security footage. And like Unknown, Run All Night takes creative advantage of the topography of its location: At one point, Collet-Serra tosses off an amusing reprise of Blackhat’s climax, albeit with Rangers fans instead of worshippers. In the context of such grace notes, it’s the film’s severe Christian parable of sin, sacrifice, and redemption that feels most askew, just as Non-Stop’s war-on-terror allegory struck many as disingenuous. Collet-Serra’s still more at home with surface polish than he is with sociopolitical statements.