Here’s the kind of what-were-they-thinking? moment that can throw you right out of a movie. Tom Carter (Liam Neeson), a bank robber extraordinaire, is about to reveal to Annie (Kate Walsh), the woman he’s in love with, that he’s not the man she thought he was. He’s got no choice but to come clean, because she arrives at his hotel at a rather inopportune moment — just as he and the corrupt FBI agent he’s in the middle of pummeling spill onto the sidewalk from the floor above. She sees him sock the agent with that I’m-going-to-put-my-fist-through-your-head ferocity that no one can summon quite like Liam Neeson. Then he shuttles her into his Jeep, and they escape with bad guys shooting at them, shattering the car’s rear window. Tom’s got a bloody bruise on his temple, and as he leads a high-speed chase through the streets of Boston, he pulls out a handgun, and Annie stares at it, agape with shock. After all of this, she says, “You have a gun?”
It’s like a moment out of “The Naked Gun.”
I can’t say (though I almost wish I could) that the rest of “Honest Thief” is that kind of howler. Directed by Mark Williams, the co-creator of the Emmy-darling Netflix drama “Ozark,” it’s a serviceably energized and routine action crime movie, with a few slammin’ fistfights and gun battles, and it proves once again that Liam Neeson is an actor who will take a paycheck gig without treating it like one.
Ever since “Taken,” 12 years ago, gave a steroid shot to his career (and damned if Neeson, at 68, doesn’t still move with the casual alacrity of a man 30 years his junior), he has made the pulp thrillers he stars in into a genre all their own. What defines it is that Neeson delivers each low-down threat and underworld proposition as if it were Shakespeare. He’s got his towering full-boil fury, but behind it there’s that lingering controlled hint of Irish politeness. He’s saying, with every line, “I don’t want to raise my voice. I don’t want to smash your windpipe. You’re making me do this. Please, for your own sake, I’d advise you to stop.” He’s an action hero who molds the world in his hands.
Annie thought Tom was an upstanding guy — not a crook, a bruiser, a gun carrier. But the hook of “Honest Thief” is that its title isn’t at all ironic. Tom really is meant to be that noble. He’s a thief who carried out a series of 12 heists, over a period of eight years, with each robbery perfectly planned and executed. His targets were small-town banks, with old vaults that go back to the ’50s, and his strategy was to enter the bank through the air-conditioning vent on the Friday night of a three-day weekend, then drill into the vault and blast it open (the pyro-drill scenes are a lot like the ones in Michael Mann’s “Thief”); then he re-plasters and paints the shattered wall. He has kept his identity secret, but he’s known as the In and Out Bandit, and he has amassed a fortune of $9 million, which he keeps, in cash, in a couple of anonymous storage units.
But now that Tom is with Annie (he met her because she’s the manager of the storage-unit facility), he wants to fess up. He can’t hide what he does behind his back the way that Neeson’s character in “Widows” hid his true nature from his wife, played by Viola Davis — and, in fact, the situation is parallel enough to make you wonder if this movie knocked off that one. “Honest Thief” is “Thief” meets “Widows” meets a cut-rate Jason Bourne film meets a Liam Neeson he’s-angry-and-will-find-you-and-kill-you thriller, all sprinkled with a touch of Neeson-as-stalwart-protector-knight romance. Kate Walsh, from “13 Reasons Why” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” plays Annie as horrified that her beau is a criminal, yet by the time he blows up the villain’s stately suburban Colonial, she just looks at him and says “Wow” with a grin of adoration. It’s payback as aphrodisiac.
Tom doesn’t just want to tell Annie about his past. He wants to turn himself in and serve time — or, at least, to bargain for a reduced sentence by promising to give back all the money. It’s not the kind of deal that the FBI generally makes, but before veteran agents Baker (Robert Patrick) and Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan) can decide what to do, they hand the case off to a couple of underlings, led by Agent Nivens (Jai Courtney), who spies the opportunity for a grand payday. He and his partner will steal the money, treating Tom as a head case who got off on confessing to a famous crime. They, of course, are messing with the wrong head case.
The idea of a super-criminal turning himself in is intriguing, but once the plan gets blown apart, “Honest Thief” becomes a glumly standard piece of B-movie Tinkertoy, with no surprises. The two rogue agents make one dumb move after another (I never bought the first murder committed by Courtney’s Agent Nevins, who starts off as a grubby opportunist and turns, on a dime, into a baby-faced sociopath). And the turmoil experienced by Agent Hall (Anthony Ramos), who got his arm twisted into going along with the scam, is fraught but weightless. “Honest Thief” isn’t incompetent (for a certain kind of pulp action fan, it delivers just enough of the goods), but it’s a textbook case of an action movie that goes through the motions. And yet the corniest thing about it — Tom’s drive to save his love for Annie — is also the most convincing. As an actor, Liam Neeson means everything he says. He’s the action star as alchemist, converting trash into…well, better trash.