Irish-American Crime Films: Run All Night (2015)


The quick and the dead: Liam Neeson in "Run All Night"

The quick and the dead: Liam Neeson in “Run All Night”

Run All Night (2015)

Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman
Summary: Neeson is game and the plotting is straightforward in this story of an enforcer looking to save his son from a mob hit, but the direction is intrusive and the action sometimes nonsensical.

To give credit where it is due, there is an elegant simplicity to the plot of “Run All Night,” and it is this: Liam Neeson has 24 hours to protect his son from a mob hit. It starts grubby, with Neeson playing an alcoholic former enforcer to an Irish mobster in New York, played by Ed Harris. Neeson is a man who is haunted by his past, when he was a notorious butcher of men, and Harris is a man who has moved past his criminal roots into semi-legitimacy. Neeson has an estranged son and Harris has a deranged son, and when the former sees the latter commit murder, the two families collide, with Neeson’s faculty for murder his only defense against the considerable resources Harris can muster. This includes rapper Common as a nearly inhuman killing machine with an unexplained yen to destroy Neeson.

The film has a series of vivid set pieces, included a protracted and lurid showdown in a burning and police-infested housing project that is like a miniature version of the Indonesian actioner “The Raid: Redemption.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Run All Night’s” screenwriter will be scripting the American adaptation of “The Raid.”). And the film tries for a gruffness, an unglamorous workaday quality like the decidedly low-rent crime films of the 70s. Liam Neeson, at the start of the film, is intoxicated and begging money to repair his heater while working as Santa at Harris’ Christmas party; we’ll see him later hugging a space heater in his ramshackle home. Neeson’s son, played by Joel Kinnaman, teaches kids in a boxing gym. The film has them visit Neeson’s brother, played by an uncredited Nick Nolte, and the former lead actor has developed a second career playing squalid, broken men, his always-raspy voice now completely ruined. Harris’ gang, in the meanwhile, is filled with an assortment of terrific Irish-American character actors, including Bruce McGill and Holt McCallany, and it’s about the most authentically Irish-American-looking mob since “State of Grace,” which this film sometimes resembles, especially in casting Ed Harris as a mob boss.

The film tries for a gruffness, an unglamorous workaday quality like the decidedly low-rent crime films of the 70s.
But there’s something a bit daft about it all. Director Jaume Collet-Serra often lenses scenes with a flashiness that manages to be showy but distracting — he especially favors cutting between scenes by sending his camera flying through the city from one location to the next, like a cinematic version of plotting a route on Google maps. The results are a bit unreal looking, and I can imagine it might have been a useful device if the intention was to clarify where scenes were set in relation to each other, or to show that everybody lives by each other, but they instead serve no obvious function.

And the script by Brad Ingelsby is sometimes oddly stupid. Harris has a gang of several dozen men, all of whom, we are given to believe, are fairly skilled at enforcing their boss’s will. Harris sends them out into the city to find Neeson and his son, and somehow they never bother to look in on Neeson’s brother, his sick mother, or the gym where Neeson’s son works to see if there is anybody there who might know anything. The police don’t bother with this either, even though, they believe (rightly) that Neeson has murdered two cops. Even Common, who is supposed to be superlative at this sort of thing, simply skips doing basic investigation and just shows up wherever a police scanner says Neeson might be, which makes his task needlessly complicated, as now his task of killing Neeson and son also involves assaulting and shooting the cops who are also looking for them. Stranger still, none of this is necessary. Neeson has made it clear he means to kill Harris; they just have to hang around by the mob boss and wait for Neeson to show up.

A pity, because the film would have benefited from making everybody competent at what they do. Every scene would have had an enjoyable frisson of potential danger to it if everywhere Neeson went, his hunters had already arrived or were on their way. His choices would have had to be smarter, and the way he went about them craftier and deadlier. Worse still, there is very little sense of a struggle in Neeson’s character — the moment the bullets fly, he stops being a drunk and just becomes the sort of towering figure of skilled murderousness that Neeson has been essaying for the past decade. But the film would have been much tenser if it were the broken Neeson, his skills undermined by years of drinking, his head foggy and his behavior stupidly and sometimes suicidally desperate.

Despite this, there are some pleasures to be had in the film. One of them comes near the film’s climax, and I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say this: It’s very similar to the ending of “State of Grace,” where a man with a gun enters an Irish bar and starts shooting. In that film, the scene ends very badly for Ed Harris. There is an almost identical scene in this film, and when the man with the gun enters the bar and starts shooting, Ed Harris behaves like he remembers the earlier film. Instead of pulling out a gun and joining in the shooting, he throws open the back door and just runs away.

I always like it when people learn from mistakes they made in earlier films.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.