‘Blacklight’ Review: Liam Neeson Does His Weary-Warrior Thing in Another Run-and-Gun Thriller

Writer-director Mark Williams provides a few echoes of ’70s paranoid melodramas to enliven very familiar material.

Ben King / Open Road Films

If “Blacklight” were any more generic, it would have a barcode instead of opening credits, and jettison its title in favor of a stenciled label: LIAM NEESON THRILLER. But if you approach it with sufficiently lowered expectations, and have fond memories of the ’70s paranoid dramas that obviously inspired director and co-writer Mark Williams, this might be your house-brand jam. That might not be enough for you to rush inside a multiplex to catch this time-killer during what likely will be a fleeting “Only In Theaters” run. “Blacklight” probably will play best when it reaches its natural habitat on streaming platform menus.

Continuing his seemingly endless run as the action-hero equivalent of Dad Jeans, Neeson brings his reliably effective world-weary gravitas to the role of Travis Block, a free-lance “fixer” for FBI director and long-time buddy Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn). Block is frequently tasked with extracting deep-cover agents when their cover is blown — or, perhaps more important, when they’ve spent too much time in the darkness to know their way out. An early scene illustrates Block’s efficiency as he saves an operative from a gun-wielding mob of what appear to be Jan. 6 cosplayers before they can do her grievous bodily harm in a trailer park. (Great solution: Distract the thugs by blowing up some of their trailers). But he’s more seriously challenged when it comes to retrieving Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith), an agent who’s taken to self-medication with pills and booze in a vain attempt to salve his guilty conscience about misdeeds in the line of duty.

Not that Crane wants to be extracted. During the movie’s opening minutes, we see him smiling approvingly while attending a campaign rally for a Congressional candidate who seems to take political inspiration (and fashion tips) from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When said candidate meets an untimely end after misplacing her trust in a ride-share driver, Crane is devastated, because while he was on an undercover mission to keep tabs on her, he — get ready for it! — fell in love with her. So he reaches out to Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman of “The Umbrella Academy”), reporter for a Washington, D.C.-based news website, to spill the beans about a dark conspiracy identified as “Operation Unity.” Not surprisingly, the FBI chief wants those beans to remain unspilled.

Meanwhile, Block is seriously considering getting out of the extraction business, if only to spend more quality time with Amanda (Claire Van Der Boom), his divorced daughter, and Natalie (Gabriella Sengos), his precocious granddaughter. Trouble is, Amanda is frankly concerned that her father’s paranoia might be contagious — she still recalls the days when he would run background checks on her friends’ parents — thereby making him a bad influence on her daughter. Block, of course, disagrees: “A little paranoia is healthy.” And besides, he’s already taught Natalie a lot about checking perimeters and looking out for strangers.

Family concerns must take a backseat to professional chores — for a while, at least — when Robinson ignores Block’s request for retirement and sends his fixer after Crane. One thing leads to another — at a satisfyingly brisk pace, it should be noted — and Block eventually unearths, with a little help from Jones, the dark truth about Operation Unity. But wait, there’s more: He does this without suffering the same fate that often befell inquisitive protagonists in the aforementioned ’70s dramas. This is a LIAM NEESON THRILLER, remember?

Working from a script he co-wrote with Nick May, Williams adds a few idiosyncratic elements to this warmed-over stew of high-speed car chases and high-casualty gunfights. Block isn’t merely paranoid, he’s also obsessive-compulsive, a fact sometimes played for laughs — such as when he meticulously sorts his shoes in his closet and orderly arranges beer cans in his refrigerator — and other times not. (His condition evidently has enhanced his ability to even the odds when outgunned.) Jones is aggressively dedicated to truth, justice and the American Way, but she’s not blind to the career-enhancement possibilities of writing “click bait.”

And you have to give Williams and Neeson this much: Even they recognize that the actor may be approaching the end of his shelf life as an action hero. Crane actually runs out of breath during extended foot chases. And when he isn’t quite able to best Crane in a fistfight, the younger man mocks him: “You’re slipping. You’re losing your grip.” Not yet. But soon?

‘Blacklight’ Review: Liam Neeson Does His Weary-Warrior Thing in Another Run-and-Gun Thriller

Reviewed online, Feb. 8, 2022. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.

  • Production: A Briarcliff Entertainment release and presentation of a Footloose production, in association with Zero Gravity Management, The Solution Entertainment Group, Sina Studios, Fourstar Films, Elevate Production Finance. Producers: Mark Williams, Paul Currie, Myles Nestel, Aleve Loh, Coco Xiaolu Ma. Executive producers: Zhe Chen, Lisa Wilson, Craig Chapman, Domenic Benvenuto, Craig McMahon, Tom Ortenberg, James Michael Cummings, Paul Saleba.
  • Crew: Director: Mark Williams. Screenplay: Nick May, Mark Williams; story: Nick May, Brandon Reavis. Camera: Shelly Johnson. Editor: Michael P. Shawyer. Music: Mark Isham.
  • With: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Taylor Johnson Smith, Yael Stone, Claire Van Der Boom, Gabriella Sengos