"Run All Night" is a revenge action movie that is at its best when the bullets aren't flying. Liam Neeson has become the patron saint of this genre now: old guys who have to roust themselves out of a torpor for One Last Job. But he's still got the goods, as a bunch of younger guys who underestimate him are soon to discover.
I really admired the setup for this story. Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in "Unknown" and "Non-Stop," and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby ("Out of the Furnace") give us a compelling world that's both familiar and new, with cops and gangsters, sons and fathers, loyalty to old friends battling with familial devotion.
It's the sort of movie where the broke-down drunk with a dark past redeems himself over the course of one night.
Neeson is Jimmy Conlon, a legendary hitman for New York mobster Shawn Maguire, who's played by Ed Harris. They used to be on the front pages all the time, mostly for outfoxing the law, but now the years have rolled on, unkindly. Shawn has become a legitimate businessman -- mostly, anyway -- and their old haunts are getting turned into Applebees.
And Jimmy, once nicknamed "Gravedigger," the guy others stepped off from when he walked into the bar, has become the pitiful rummy they laugh at.
One early scene is more or less lifted straight out of "The Godfather," with Shawn's kid Danny (Boyd Holbrook) demonstrating what a loose cannon he is. Through a convoluted bit of exposition, Jimmy's own son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) gets caught in the middle of some intrigue, witnesses Danny doing some bad things, so Danny decides he's got to protect himself. Long story short, Danny winds up dead by Jimmy's hand.
It's telling that within seconds of gunning down his best friend's kid, Jimmy's first act is to call Shawn and tell him the news, without preamble. That's who he is. There is no hesitation or dissembling with him. He offers his own life in exchange for his son's. But Shawn is old school, and needs for others to suffer in order to quench his own.
The rest of the movie turns into one long big chase scene, with Jimmy and Michael, who have long been estranged for obvious reasons, trying to keep each other alive. A bunch of mob goons are after them, along with the police, a goodly portion of whom are on Shawn's payroll. The only cop Jimmy is able to trust is Detective Harding (Vincent D'Onofrio), who despises him for beating the rap so long.
This stuff is engaging enough, though it eventually becomes an indistinguishable mix of running, gunfire and beefy guys grappling with each other. Rapper/actor Common turns up as an icy assassin brought in to clean things up. He uses a fancy gun rig, night vision lenses and other modern gear, acting as Jimmy's latter-day doppelganger.
I liked a lot about "Run All Night" while still wishing it had found a better way to balance its various story elements. The scenes with Neeson and Harris facing off with each other are the finest, two grizzled partners in crime who can't scrub off the sins of the past.
But they end up getting buried in all the bang-bang scenes -- unnecessarily buttressed with "bullet time" CG and topsy-turvy editing. The weighty business about honor and debts is there, but it's grace notes and echoes of a superior movie. It's still a rousing flick, but boy, shoulda coulda.