Any film that overtly utilises the very same locations as Goodfellas and The French Connection is in danger of exposing it’s jaw to the right hook that comes from a comparison to these two cinematic classics.
When that same film also attempts to elevate its by-the-numbers action plot into a heavy mafia drama, then the guard may just as well be dropped altogether.
To ruin the suspense, Run All Night doesn’t match up to either of those films – it’s the equivalent of a first-round knockout. In fact there is an argument to say it doesn’t even match up to the previous two collaborations that star Liam Neeson has made with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra. Whereas neither Unknown nor Non-stop reinvented the action wheel, they both contained certain elements of originality and both were still able to ride the wave of success that came from Neeson’s career-reinvention with Taken. For what is the hat-trick of productions together, Run All Night really needed to offer something new, and - despite it’s best attempts to provide that very thing - there is a sense that they’ve tried too hard to change a formula that was becoming tired, only to create a thematic muddle that is hard to categorise as one genre or another, and even worse, offers nothing in the way of originality or invention.
Summarily, Run All Night is the story of aging mafia hitman Jimmy Conlon (Neeson) and his attempts to protect his estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnamon), from his boss and local mafia kingpin, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) after their involvement in the death of Maguire’s son. The Conlon’s become embroiled in a cat and mouse pursuit as they attempt to flee the city and ward off both the NYPD and the mafia, in one hellacious night.
Set on the streets of New York City, Collet-Serra seeks to use the location to his advantage and - in much the same way as Michael Mann exploited the neon wonderland of LA to lend Collateral a certain optical resonance – the director allows the indistinguishable vibrancy and atmosphere of the Brooklyn streets to seep into almost every frame of film. Visually, Run All Night impresses in spades, but thematically it is let down by a tonal imbalance and a confusion over what kind of film this is actually supposed to be - is it a frenetic action film or a slow-burning mafia epic? Rather than decide on one genre or the other, the film flits between the two with no consistent pace and it is hard for the audience to pick up the generic thread, which leaves a lingering feeling that we aren’t entirely sure what type of film we are supposed to be watching.
Both star and director seem self-aware enough to realise that they are synonymous with the action genre, but rather than create a carbon-copy of Taken there has been a conscious effort to add weight and gravitas to the plot with the inclusion of some impressive dramatic scenes and sub-plots. However, the strength of this drama is also one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. As engaging as these scenes are – particularly anything that involves Harris – they feel as though they belong to an entirely different movie, and only help to reinforce the unshakeable feeling that Run All Night feels like two halves which don’t quite make a whole.
Had the film focused itself on becoming what started off as a tight, gritty mafia drama then it could have potentially been something special - the intense dramatic scenes far outweigh any of the action sequences that feature and, in particular, Ed Harris’ measured-yet-powerful performance deserved a much better vehicle to showcase it, than what he was offered here. Projecting a quiet, brooding menace that harks back to a golden age of the mafia genre, Harris is the finest thing in the film – not that there is much competition for that distinction. From the moment he emerges on screen - in what is a blatant homage to Brando’s introduction in The Godfather – Harris is magnetic, and it is a great irony that the criminal he portrays is criminally underused.
Focusing on the action itself, there is also a feeling that the film doesn’t quite hit all the bases and anyone expecting to see another furious Neeson kravmaga smackdown, will be greatly disappointed, Conlon doesn’t have the “particular set of skills” that made Bryan Mills such an entertaining role. He is a street-level hitman and whilst he can give and take a punch most of the action is of a brawling, disorganised variety - kudos to the director for trying to preserve the films authenticity, but again it feels as though the movies genre has never quite been nailed down. The action feels as though it belongs in a drama, as too do the most engrossing scenes in the film, yet primarily Run All Night is being packaged as an action movie much along the lines of what has come before from Neeson. Whether it’s a case of the movie being poorly marketed, or simply that the film-makers aimed too highly and missed the point, it’s hard to fully decide one way or the other.
Even the impressive sweeping camera-techniques that are used by Collet-Serra to relocate the plot and convey the ‘real-time’ aura that the film is aiming for, begin to feel like a ‘show-off’ gesture that doesn’t fit around the concentrated dramatic moments that we are transposed from whenever they are used. We seem to be yanked from a period of brooding intensity and unceremoniously dumped square into a loud, banging action flick which again does nothing but emphasise the massive imbalance of tone that is never resolved one way or another.
Neeson gushed that his director was different than most when it comes to action films, in that “some directors are obsessed with the background and what’s happening behind everyone’s head, the pyrotechnics and effects….but Jaume focuses on the actors” an admirable trait in this age of instant gratification and a somewhat ‘dumbing-down’ approach to film-making but you need to ensure you focus on the right actors to ensure that this approach is a success.
In wanting to make the relationship between father and son central to the narrative, there is an evident feeling that the film-makers have settled on the wrong dynamic and ignored what could have been the most fruitful examination instead.
Whilst the chemistry between Neeson and Kinammon is never really there – even for what is supposed to be an estranged family dynamic there seems something missing between the two leads – the electricity between Neeson and Harris whenever they share screen time is almost sizzling. One scene in particular - in which the two former friends face-off for a final meeting at a local restaurant - is perhaps the stand-out of the entire films duration, and will evoke images of the famous Pacino/De Niro face-off from Heat, for its stunning, captivating quality. However, moments such as these are unfortunately short-lived and Run All Night suffers from not only a major middle-act lull, but also a drawn-out and slightly contrived ending - Neeson even has both the time and access to stop off and visit his sick mother at the hospital despite the entire NYPD and criminal underworld searching for him – that ensures any momentum created by the drama is quickly dissipated by the mundane action that intersects it.
Definitively, Run All Night is a formulaic, at times dull, action film that loses it’s way after a promising start, and contains elements of dramatic intrigue which unfortunately are never fully explored. It’s central problems stem from ignoring what makes it so appealing (Harris, the drama) and instead focussing on trying to syphon an original action film from a frankly unoriginal script. Audiences are now too familiar with Neeson in these types of role, and had they wanted to see a riveting, revenge-actioner that contained both smarts and knuckle-bruising brutality, then they could have just re-watched the Taken DVD again, indeed the very fact this release comes hot-on-the-heels of Taken 3, feels like over-kill and a market saturation that is simply just one feature too many.
“Whenever we cross the line we’re going together” is the motif shared between Neeson and Harris, and in the case of the former, the longer he continues to dial-it-in with spiritless performances like this the closer he’s getting to crossing that line into career self-parody.