Jaume Collet-Serra's Run All Night, a shoot-'em-up about an out-to-pasture hit man desperate to keep his boss and best friend from whacking his son, is humid with testosterone. It's the sort of film where a woman accidentally caught by the camera practically apologizes and scurries away from the lens. When two men sit in a car, the windows inevitably fog.
Weary killer Jimmy the Gravedigger is played by 62-year-old Liam Neeson, Collet-Serra's muse, both men still enjoying the afterglow of 2008's Taken. That movie launched a new genre — Geezer Guignol — which clicked with audiences because it taps into several fantasies at once: It makes old men feel cool, young men feel hopeful, and snobbish cineastes justify their zeal for gore by pointing at Neeson's Oscar nomination. (Now, even Sean Penn has muscled into the marketplace with The Gunman, directed by Taken's Pierre Morel.) Plus, aging up the action star has the neat trick of giving even the silliest scripts gravitas. Our hero isn't some quippy kid, but a bathed-in-blood King Lear. Look into Neeson's eyes and know, even if the dialogue can't quite express it, that this man understands death.
Once the guns get unholstered, Neeson's movies are always the same, whether they take place on planes or Turkish rooftops. Neeson and Collet-Serra have made three of them. At least Brad Ingelsby's script for Run All Night opens with a twist. Neeson's Jimmy is a pathetic drunk two decades past intimidating the thugs at the local pub, the headquarters of New York's Irish mafia. Though he murdered over a dozen men, including his own cousin, today he's mocked for passing out at the bar and farting in his sleep. (Do the young jokers not see his abs?) Forced to play Santa at a posh Christmas party, Jimmy gets wasted on Scotch, upsets the children and propositions the wives, who have the good sense to grimace when he boasts, “I'm skinny, but I'm long.”
Collet-Serra doesn't play the scene for laughs. It's pure humiliation. And the setup pays off when the host, Shawn (Ed Harris), a rich crook attempting to go straight, doesn't throw his old buddy out of his house. Instead, he tucks Jimmy in an upstairs bedroom, feeds him a sandwich, and gets him talking about his broken soul. This, says the movie, is male friendship — straight talk and forgiveness. With Jimmy's wife long dead and his son (Joel Kinnaman), a young father and boxing coach, estranged, whatever decades the broke murderer has left are just pointless muck, no more worthwhile than time spent watching a mud puddle dry.
Then Run All Night gets really cruel. Thanks to a too-coincidental collision between Jimmy's son Michael, Shawn's son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) and a couple Albanian heroin dealers, the two old lions are forced to hunt each other to defend their families. Collet-Serra is so excited to unleash Neeson that the film spins itself silly with swooping zooms and portentous lightning claps, both of which make this movie's New York seem as small and goofy as a comic-book panel. They're the directorial flourishes of a guy who wants to impress. But flagrant CGI doesn't quite fit a story as musty as this — it's the equivalent of a shoe salesman swaggering into a nightclub with a backwards cap.
It all works for a while because Neeson has hooked us on his character's woes. We care about this defeated, flatulent man, even as we agree that his only value is as a human shield. In an early phone call, Shawn warns Jimmy, “You know how this has to end.” He does, and so do we. The only questions are whether he'll be able to die on his own terms, and if he deserves to. After all, Jimmy's still the creep who awkwardly jokes that he went to his dead wife's wake for the free booze.
The flick is at its best when Collet-Serra goes old-school with clanging-metal car chases, flaming-table-leg fights, and a brawl set in the filthiest subway bathroom in Queens. (When Neeson's flung against a urinal, his gravest danger is hepatitis.) There are as many wall-mounted phones as there are in Three Days of the Condor — if you're counting, there are more phones than female characters, who spend the movie comatose in hospital beds, fretting silently in the background or being hugged through a doorway. It's enough to make you wish a girl would get kidnapped just to factor in to the plot. But, like the Bible, Run All Night is devoted to its sons who grow up to be ingrates or losers but are framed like angels in the family portraits that cluster along every interior wall.
Let us not question that guilt-ridden Jimmy is willing to protect his boy by, er, doubling his body count and murdering his old friends (though the film would be better if it did). As Shawn says, we know how this story ends. Run All Night is like spending two hours looping around the same roller coaster – but here's no shame in giving in to the familiar thrills, or in bypassing it entirely in search of new kinds of fun.