Filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra has directed Liam Neeson twice before during the actor’s post-Taken career. First in the second-rate Unknown and then in the second-rate Non-Stop, which at least had a condensed setting at 30,000 feet to keep things interesting. After those two substandard thrillers, Neeson came back strong in the bleak urban noir A Walk Among the Tombstones, before collecting another paycheck for Taken 3. For his third film with Neeson, Run All Night, Collet-Serra comes very close to making a cohesive, gritty crime drama, but fumbles by making some wildly bad choices.
Neeson plays his least sympathetic character yet as Jimmy Conlon, a retired NYC hit man who at one time was so infamous he earned the nickname “Gravedigger.” Now he’s a guilt-ridden drunk who’s reduced to begging for handouts from his old boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) and his arrogant punk-ass son Danny (Boyd Holbrook).
Jimmy’s got a son of his own, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), a boxing coach for underprivileged kids who moonlights as a limo driver. He wants nothing to do with his deadbeat, drunken dad and strives to give his family a better life. One night Danny gets in over his head with a group of heroin pushers and this is where believability is pushed to its limits. Just so happens Michael is the drug pushers’ limo driver, so he witnesses Danny killing them and in turn, becomes the kid’s next target, despite their fatherly connection.
When Jimmy comes knocking, Michael refuses his help. That is until Danny pulls a gun on Michael and Jimmy intuitively shoots and kills him. The decades old bond between Jimmy and Shawn is now broken and the latter vows to kill Michael in retribution, kicking off the Conlons’ long night of running and gunning.
The first big action scene is a car chase with Jimmy taking on a couple of cops and it has to be one of the worst chases in recent memory. There’s no logic whatsoever and it’s filmed in a way that it’s hardly ever clear where Jimmy is in relation to the cop car. The fight scenes are decent, particularly one in a bathroom, but the film has a bad habit of cutting away the second before a punch actually lands. Jimmy swings and we know he connects because the other guy grunts, we just never actually see the impact. It’s a weird, distracting editing choice. I like how sloppy a lot of the fights are though. It’s clear Jimmy is much more comfortable with a gun than he is with his fists.
Another distracting choice is the CGI transitions that zoom the camera in and out of NYC locations in something resembling a video game cut-scene. It’s an ugly and obnoxious way to move to the next scene. Then there’s the superfluous hit man Price played by recent Oscar-winner Common, a character that would feel more at home in a movie like Smokin’ Aces than here. He’s one of the indestructible, relentless types who never show emotion. During one chaotic set piece that drives the whole film completely off the rails, Price uses a silly night-vision monocle and laser sight – two things that easily give away his location to Jimmy. He just doesn’t belong in this movie. Another excessive character is Nick Nolte, who pops in for a couple minutes to narrate an unnecessary flashback that makes Michael hate Jimmy even more. Scenes like this, along with one where Jimmy visits his mom in the hospital, come out of nowhere, shoving the film further off course while padding out its nearly two hour run time.
Neeson knows this gruff, brooding territory really well by now and Kinnaman’s dagger-eyed toughness and vulnerability make them a good pair. Harris plays the quiet menace very well and besides Price, his stable of henchmen gunning for Michael are wholly believable. They all look like blue-collar criminals with their roots firmly in the streets. Jimmy and Michael share the best scenes together and there’s a strong sense of a shared history of violence and brotherhood when they share the screen.
So while the characters are give the film weight, it’s the aforementioned bad choices that prevent Run All Night from being a really good crime drama. The film never really comes together and by the third time the unstoppable Common shows up, all palpable sentiment and drama is thrown out the window.