Run All Night is unquestionably the best of the seemingly endless series of thrillers Liam Neeson has made since 2008’s Taken made him a most unlikely action star at the age of 56. And yet, rather than being celebrated for rising above the others, Run All Night has been received so poorly by moviegoers one must now presume that Neeson’s surprising later-in-life dash through the international box office as one of the cinema’s most reliable money-makers is nearing its end.
Neeson is Jimmy Conlon, a tormented sexagenarian boozehound who has fallen far and hard from the days when he was a feared hitman in the service of Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), the New York mob boss who has been his dearest friend and living idol for more than 40 years. Conlon begs for money to fix a busted heater in his house, but we know he will just use the bucks for drink. He ruins Maguire’s Christmas party by smelling up a Santa suit. Maguire’s other lackeys are contemptuous of him. But Maguire, who genuinely loves Conlon, is gentle and kind. Conlon confesses to his friend that he drinks because he can no longer sleep; the men he has killed are haunting him.
Conlon has an estranged son (Joel Kinnaman) who makes an honest living as a limousine driver to support his wife and two kids and views his father with appropriate disgust. Maguire has a spoiled and hotheaded son. Through sheer coincidence, Conlon’s son inadvertently witnesses Maguire’s son commit two murders. Conlon is then forced to kill his best friend’s boy to prevent him from executing his own. The two Conlons must spend a night on the run throughout New York City, evading the grief-stricken wrath of Maguire, the cool and commanding assassin (played by the rapper Common) Maguire has engaged to get them, and the crooked cops on Maguire’s payroll who are busily trying to frame the younger Conlon for the killings.
What makes Run All Night special is the beautifully drawn relationship between Conlon and Maguire. The screenplay, by Brad Ingelsby, is essentially the story of a bromance gone disastrously wrong between these two mortally sinful men. The scenes they share give Neeson and Harris a chance to slow things down, settle in, and conduct a joint masterclass in emotional underacting. This is Neeson’s best performance since his towering work as Jean Valjean in the overlooked 1998 version of Les Misérables, and it may be Ed Harris’s best work on screen ever.
This is what separates and elevates Run All Night above several recent, startlingly similar pictures. Neeson’s own A Walk Among the Tombstones, Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, and Tom Hardy’s The Drop, all from last year, share its gritty outerborough locales and plots involving wounded and problematic protagonists who find themselves in deadly confrontations with crooked cops and multigenerational gangster families whose younger members have plunged into outright psychopathy.
But this film’s inventive director, Jaume Collet-Serra, does more with the setting: He uses what might be called a Google Earth-style view of New York to enliven his tale and give this most photographed of cities a different sense of place. And Run All Night does more with its characters. Even the secondary performers are given their moments. Nick Nolte turns up for a single cracker-jack scene as Conlon’s appalled older brother. And Vincent D’Onofrio is great as an honest police detective who has been tracking Conlon for decades—and is tormented by the wives and families of Conlon’s victims who write him regularly begging for any information on the hitman’s 16 unsolved killings.
Most important, Run All Night raises the emotional stakes in a way the others didn’t when it forces Conlon to defend the son who despises him by destroying, with a single shot, the only enduring and stable relationship in his life.
But just as the Jimmy Conlon we meet at the beginning of the picture has burned out, so, it seems, has Liam Neeson’s career as a $20-million leading man. This is the fourth movie starring him as a lone-wolf man’s man to be released in the past 13 months, and profoundly diminishing returns have set in. The first, Non-Stop, made $92 million. The second, Taken 3, made $88 million. The third, A Walk Among the Tombstones, made $26 million. Run All Night will probably make a little more than that one, but not much more.