Like Jason Statham, Liam Neeson is an actor who makes action movies that oscillate between giving people exactly what they expect and challenging those expectations with something that contains action, yet focuses more energy on drama and story. You can see him do his thing in movies like Non-Stop and Taken 3, or you can see him try a little harder in movies like A Walk Among the Tombstones and, now, Run All Night.
And while that automatically raises Run All Night’s status somewhat (it is way, way better than any of the Taken movies), it doesn’t necessarily make it a great movie. If you’re going to hit drama and story as hard as it gets hit here, those efforts still need to land. Run All Night strives for that high mark but never quite gets there.
The story revolves around Neeson’s Jimmy Conlon, a drunken loser who lives in an increasingly thick fog of guilt for the mob killings he committed in his youth while working for his best friend and symbol for greatness, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). The contrast here is pretty extreme. Maguire is handsome, clean, and rich. Meanwhile, his snotty son belittles Jimmy by making him play Santa Claus at a family party.
Condon has a son, too, a limo driver/boxing trainer named Mike (Joel Kinnaman). Mike and his family live a straight life, and he wants nothing to do with his deadbeat, murderous father. Through a series of coincidences that push believability to the limits, Jimmy kills Shawn’s kid when Shawn’s kid tries to kill Jimmy’s kid. Oh shit! Now they gotta run all night.
But they don’t actually run all night. By choosing drama instead of action, the film loses any propulsive energy a plot setup like this should provide. Run All Night focuses our attention far more on Jimmy’s redemption as a man and the tragic loss of Jimmy and Shawn’s long-standing friendship than the story of how Jimmy saves his son’s life. In fact, Jimmy and Mike frequently split up for long periods of time so Neeson can bro-down with Ed Harris, or in one case so he can visit his dying mother just after we find out he even HAS a mother (seriously). This dependency on character building also keeps the film from properly starting for an extended period of time and pushes the running time to almost two hours.
What an awful person I must be to discredit a movie for focusing on drama and character development over just a bunch of dumb violence. I feel like an asshole, believe me. But this really is the core dilemma that holds Run All Night back. The plot setup begs for brevity while the tone feels more like a two-hour wake. It’s not exactly one thing or the other, but a bad mixture of both. So while we have multiple scenes dedicated to Jimmy and Shawn’s history and friendship, we also have genre staples like Common’s robotic, unkillable hitman who shows up to cause trouble whenever it’s convenient.
Most individual scenes and sequences in Run All Night are actually quite good. Neeson and Harris do their normal thing, but you really feel their relationship. The action is serviceable rather than exemplary, but that’s more or less a plus when it comes to Liam Neeson movies. The only weak link is Kinnaman’s Mike, whose skinny, grizzled look contrasts with the character’s supposed removal from and abject relationship with Neeson’s world. Furthermore, Mike kind of just boils down to a bunch of “I hate you, Dad” anger for much of the film. Neither are really Kinnaman’s fault, but had this character come through more, the film’s rivaling halves maybe could have met somewhere closer to the middle.
While Run All Night never really comes all the way together, you can feel something truly wonderful bubbling beneath it. That alone makes it one of the better Liam Neeson vehicles out there. If nothing else, you get to see Neeson play a drunken, lecherous Santa Claus in front of a bunch of disturbed children.