Critics may not like Liam Neeson's action movies, but that hasn't translated into folks not liking him for making them. Unlike, say, Johnny Depp and his endless array of "zany" characters or Nicolas Cage and his pitiful cornucopia of forgettable doing-it-for-the-paycheck roles, he hasn't become a punchline. In part, that's because Neeson has been willing to mock his unlikely ascension to Hollywood badass—for ESPN, for Saturday Night Live a couple of times—but it's also because no matter how mediocre a Non-Stop or Taken 3 is, the Oscar-nominated actor has never embarrassed himself during this "very particular set of skills" phase of his career. I've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating: Neeson's movies' problem isn't Neeson, who brings the right amount of gravity and world-weariness to them.
Run All Night won't be the moment that audiences turn on him, but if the actor is sincere in his desire to retire from action movies in two years, well, it's probably time. Here, he plays Jimmy Conlon, a typical Neeson hero: He's got a dark sense of humor, he's awesome at killing people, and he's very, very sorry for his past sins. A former lethal New York hitman for his childhood buddy, underworld figure Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), Jimmy is too old for that world anymore. But then his estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), a humble limo driver far removed from his dad's life of crime, witnesses Shawn's kid Danny (Boyd Holbrook) ice some Albanian gangsters. To protect Mike, Jimmy kills Danny just as he's about to kill Mike. That, of course, displeases Shawn, which sets in motion an all-night chase between Shawn's team of hired goons and Jimmy and Mike.
There is nothing in Run All Night you haven't seen before somewhere else: a gritty crime drama set in New York, an aging killer who wants a shot at redemption, an angry son who must reconcile with his regretful father, two old friends bound by their roots but torn apart by circumstance, a claustrophobic story that takes place over one long night. This is the third film Neeson has made with director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop), who has provided the star with a steady income stream beyond the Taken franchise. And despite its thoroughly recycled plot and milieu, the result is pretty consistently engaging—which is a movie-critic term that means, "You won't be bored, but you will wonder what would happen if all this manpower and creative energy were expended on something faintly original."
As a filmmaker, Collet-Serra is a wiz with pulpy, taut action scenes. There are at least three boss sequences in Run All Night—a car chase, a run around an apartment complex, and a shootout in the woods—and the director films them all with a B-movie-on-a-studio-budget enthusiasm. Junkie XL's score, Martin Ruhe's cinematography, and Dirk Westervelt's editing all conspire to lend the film an air of nocturnal dread and paranoia. There's a downpour during part of the movie, but the streets always feel rainswept, the gloom and ghosts of Jimmy's past deeds hovering around him.
Collet-Serra throws plenty of atmosphere and propulsion at us, but he knows his greatest resource is Neeson. When the 62-year-old star is given a script as good as The Grey, he can turn his brooding-hero persona into something powerfully haunting, a force of nature commensurate with the unforgiving wilderness and hungry wolves that surrounded his character in that film. But with a better-than-average vehicle like this, he merely embodies a familiar type, and perhaps we should simply be grateful that he hasn't yet resorted to hamming it up or winking at the audience. You'll watch him act the hell out of a Heat-like dinner scene with Harris, who's sufficiently crusty in the role, and then get all mournful alongside Kinnaman as Jimmy tries to apologize for his past murderous ways. (Later, he'll exchange gunfire with Common, who plays an elite assassin who's seemingly been beamed in from The Bourne Hyperbole.) None of it is that memorable, but I didn't find myself entirely unhappy during the experience. Run All Night is the very embodiment of the rental recommendation: If you lower your expectations sufficiently, you'll be fine. But why lower them that much?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.