Run All Night is an action movie. It knows that. It knows we know that. For those of you who want to watch Liam Neeson running around uttering threats, and then subsequently following through on those threats, you won’t be disappointed.
But for an action first movie, Run All Night takes a lot more care filling in the blanks than it has to—a lot more than most in the genre feel they need to. That extra bit of thought goes a long way, turning what on paper seems like a largely forgettable premise into a tense action thriller with a surprising amount of depth.
Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) is an aging hitman haunted by his past deeds. He’s not what anyone would call a success story, flat broke and prone to sleeping in bars. His son Mike (Joel Kinnaman)—who we’re quickly shown is an upstanding citizen, mentoring at risk youth and caring for his young and growing family—wants nothing to do with him. He knows what his father is and resents him for leaving his mom when he was a kid.
Luckily for Jimmy, he still has a friend in his old boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Shawn’s done a lot better for himself than Jimmy, but he hasn’t forgotten his old friend, routinely lending him money and looking out for him whenever he can.
Unfortunately, Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is a bit of a loose cannon. One night, after a business deal falls through, he kills two drug smugglers. Mike, a limo driver, witnesses the crime, but before Danny can kill him Jimmy intervenes. Danny is killed and Shawn sets out to avenge his son. Jimmy and Mike are sent running… all night (that’s how they got the title!).
Now read those last three paragraphs and tell me you haven’t seen pretty much all of that before. The wise old mob boss, the screw up son, the aging hitman who’s only good at one thing (spoiler alert: it’s killing). There’s a father-son redemption story thrown in there. And you’d better believe there’s a scene planted somewhere in the middle of all of it where the hero and villain sit down and have a calm and yet largely threatening conversation.
Run All Night is basically a collection of mob and action movie clichés. It’s unabashedly formulaic. Even if you hadn’t seen a preview you could probably figure out what’s going to happen here within a few minutes.
But the script has a way of sneaking in a surprising amount of nuance into that rigid framework, taking a few of these stock characters and flipping them on their heads. Ed Harris’ mob boss Shawn is played with a surprising amount of compassion. And Jimmy doesn’t need a close call with his son to wake him up to his dubious past. He’s already bothered by all the people he’s killed. You almost feel like he just might turn himself in out of guilt.
It’s not The Godfather or anything, but it’s these small touches that gives the story enough heft to make the action feel meaningful.
Some of the credit for that nuance should go to the actors. Ed Harris delivers such a great performance it’ll have you questioning why you don’t see Ed Harris in more things. He skillfully avoids turning Shawn into a rage filled sociopath, adding just enough pathos to make you actually feel bad for the film’s villain.
Liam Neeson admittedly takes this sort of role a lot more often—How many Taken movies have there been now? Just leave that guy’s daughter alone, it is clearly not working out for anyone to keep kidnapping her!—but here he once again manages to artfully convey the deep singeing regret of Jimmy with a few mournful looks and some short mumbled dialogue.
As for the action, well it’s the meat of the movie and it’s all executed quite skillfully, capturing a sort of cat and mouse style that keeps the tension high while still feeling relatively grounded. Smartly, it avoids too many over the top moments of eye rolling extravagance.
Run All Night doesn’t exactly stray too far from the genre’s conventions, but add together solid performances from Neeson and Harris, a script that avoids turning its characters into walking clichés, and some well-choreographed set pieces and you’ve got a movie that knows what it wants to be and does a pretty good job of finishing.
Final Score: 3/5