Someday the mobsters, petty thugs and crooked cops of the world will finally get it through their thick skulls that you should never, ever mess with Liam Neeson’s family — not that audiences have reason to complain in the meantime, so long as they keep getting action pictures as straightforward and robustly satisfying as “Run All Night.” In his third and arguably most effective partnership with director Jaume Collet-Serra (after “Unknown” and “Non-Stop”), the 62-year-old Neeson puts his world-weary killer instincts to good use as an aging Brooklyn hit man trying to protect his estranged son — a twist that pushes this tense, elegantly assembled chase thriller into full-on male-weepie territory, so heavy with sins-of-the-fathers anguish that it almost plays out like a latter-day “Road to Perdition.” Yet Collet-Serra keeps things moving so nimbly that the emotions never turn leaden, suggesting that this Warner Bros. programmer could display some much-needed commercial stamina in a season of box office disappointments.
In less assured hands, movie titles like “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” might have promised something of a viewer endurance test rather than the efficient, fleet-footed genre exercises that have gratifyingly emerged. After a shaky but intriguing start with 2011’s “Unknown,” Collet-Serra and Neeson have proven themselves to be expert recyclers, devising a series of brawny standalone entertainments delivered with enough smarts and style — not that a whole lot is required, mind — to outclass the actor’s “Taken” franchise. (Last year’s “Non-Stop” even managed to outpace the recent “Taken 3” domestically, earning $92 million Stateside to the latter pic’s $88 million.)
This time around, however, director and star have dispensed with their earlier Hitchcockian wrong-man scenarios. There’s no mistaking Neeson for anything but the right man in “Run All Night” — namely, Jimmy Conlon, an Irish-American mafioso who knows his pursuers all too well and can scarcely begrudge them for wanting to hunt him down. Remarkably, despite the narrative’s compact 16-hour time frame, an entire gangland history manages to come into fleeting focus, as Collet-Serra freights even the most offhand exchanges of dialogue (and gunfire) with a disquieting intimacy that underscores his characters’ shared experience: Whether conceived on a grand scale or in close quarters, the violence always feels personal.
If there’s a weakness in the clean, economical screenplay by Brad Ingelsby (who co-scripted 2013’s “Out of the Furnace”), it’s that Neeson’s character seems perhaps too forlorn a figure at the outset, an impression that doesn’t entirely jibe with the keen-witted man of action who emerges later. Once known as “the Gravedigger,” the deadliest arrow in the quiver of respected Brooklyn kingpin Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), Jimmy is now a hopeless hanger-on, stuck nursing a lifetime’s worth of regrets with endless glasses of whiskey, and forced to earn quick cash by performing humiliating favors for Shawn’s son and heir, Danny (Boyd Holbrook). Handsome, spoiled, callow and monstrous, Danny has clearly absorbed the elder Maguire’s ruthlessness but none of his professional scruples or life knowledge. By contrast, Jimmy’s lone son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), has become a paragon of working-class virtue — a dutiful family man who wants nothing to do with his old man and his life of crime.
With the various intergenerational contrasts and parallels thus established, all the long-simmering tensions suddenly explode one winter evening when Mike, a limo driver in the wrong place at the wrong time, witnesses Danny blowing away an Albanian heroin dealer. (For all its general superiority to the “Taken” movies, “Run All Night” is no improvement in the ethnic sensitivity department.) In short order, Mike is forced to renew ties with the hated Jimmy, his only hope of staying alive and ensuring the safety of his pregnant wife (Genesis Rodriguez) and two daughters (Giulia Cicciari, Carrington Meyer). In one of the script’s shrewder gambits, Jimmy’s instinctive decision to side with his own blood has the immediate effect of severing all ties to his employer, something both sides accept with almost matter-of-fact resignation. Viewers may be reminded of the similarly strict gangland protocols that governed last year’s Keanu Reeves starrer “John Wick,” in which longtime business associates, faced with an unexpected personal betrayal, calmly negotiated the terms under which they would proceed to obliterate each other.
Liberated from the confines of a 767 in “Non-Stop,” Collet-Serra fully embraces his newfound sense of visual freedom, sending the camera whooshing in all directions across the city — a mode of transitioning between scenes that feels a trifle flashy, yet potently conveys the story’s scope. (Brian Heller is credited with the aerial photography.) Although Ingelsby’s script was originally set in his hometown of Philadelphia, “Run All Night” turns out to be one of the more immersive New York-shot genre movies of recent vintage, benefiting from d.p. Martin Ruhe’s moody nocturnal lensing and production designer Sharon Seymour’s richly conceived sets; many of the fictional backdrops used, from Shawn’s Irish-pub HQ to the boxing gym in the Bronx where Mike trains neighborhood kids, draw upon (and sometimes artfully combine) locations in different boroughs.
No less impressive is the film’s integration of the city’s topography and architecture into its most ambitious action sequences, from a palpably tense car chase through the streets of Brooklyn (ultimately ending, in a sly visual shortcut, at a pawn shop in Queens), to a daring escape filmed during the chaotic aftermath of a Rangers-Devils game at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps most daunting of all is a setpiece that covers multiple floors of a burning apartment complex, as the Conlons set out to protect an innocent kid witness (Aubrey Omari Joseph) while dodging a skilled contract killer (Common, a long way from “Selma”). Through it all, whether incorporating parkour moves into a breathless foot chase or staging a climactic three-way manhunt in the foggy wilderness near Putnam, N.Y., Collet-Serra displays a level of crafty professionalism and logistical knowhow worthy of his resourceful protagonists.
With its grim, fatalistic twists and brooding air of patriarchal anxiety — this is a world where sons are doomed to suffer the consequences of their fathers’ mistakes, or repeat them to even more damaging effect — “Run All Night” doesn’t exactly cover new ground. (One narrative digression feels particularly unnecessary in its attempt to crank up Mike’s resentment of Jimmy; mainly, it exists to justify an unbilled cameo from an actor whose presence is welcome but not essential.) Yet even when he’s dealing with this boilerplate material, Collet-Serra brings an understated intensity and a subtle emotional pull to every scene, aided immeasurably by actors who invest their roles, big and small, with just the right degree of conviction.
By now it should come as a surprise to no one that Neeson has become perhaps our most consistently reliable and bankable action hero, and “Run All Night” ably taps into his reserves of grit and gravitas as Jimmy leaps into action, takes down enemy assailants, and above all protects those he loves, even if it means sometimes ramming them off the road. As ever, the actor’s handsome, careworn face seems capable of projecting decency and tenderness as well as cruelty, perfect for the role of a cold-blooded killer we intuitively trust. Jimmy’s interactions with his old friend-turned-nemesis Shawn are among the film’s most affecting moments, not least because Harris is one of the few actors capable of looking utterly dead-eyed while still possessing a certain soulful twinkle. Also leaving strong impressions are Bruce McGill as Shawn’s formidable No. 2 and Vincent D’Onofrio as one of the few honest cops in a city overrun with police corruption.
Kinnaman, who anchored last year’s “RoboCop” reboot, more than holds his own opposite Neeson while revealing a crucial dimension of vulnerability. Although a physically tough specimen himself, Mike is a man for whom violence doesn’t come naturally, and Jimmy is determined to keep it that way, repeatedly intervening so that his son will never know the soul-crushing agony of taking a life, even in self-defense. It’s an overtly moralistic, vaguely Catholic touch, and one that can’t help but ring slightly false in a movie that, like so many of Neeson’s assignments of late, turns the spectacle of mass killing into a job well done.