With a strange mix of underground horror shock and existential atmosphere, Calvin Lee Reeder made a name for himself with short films like Piledriver and Little Farm. His features films The Rambler (Anchor Bay Films) and The Oregonian (Factory 25) divided and excited Sundance audiences just as his shorts had before them. Reeder specializes in turning lo-fi splatter pics into art films by meshing high-concept thought and design with genre storylines. Follow him here.
“Thou shalt not kill” is a good law. There’s a lot of obvious reasons why, but I guess I don’t think enough about how just never having killed anyone helps me retain an innocence and naiveté that I’m pretty much unaware I have. People who’ve killed people get away with it and walk around free all the time. I guess they get over it. But what if you’ve killed a lot and you’re really good at not getting caught and you’re mostly indifferent to the guilt? I’m pretty sure the illusion of morality just drifts away. What happens then? You’d be a gangster. There’s a lot of room for darkness in there.
In Run All Night, Liam Neeson plays a dude named Jimmy who’s a lot like that. I’m not saying he’s totally guiltless, but he functions pretty well for a fella who’s murdered as often as he has. He’s an aging hood who never seemed to gain as much power and respect as his equally murderous best friend Shawn (Ed Harris). But jealousy hasn’t ruined these two, and they look out for each other. Shawn takes care of Jimmy when he needs it and in return Jimmy kills people and stuff like that. The arrangement’s going pretty well until their sons have a nasty run-in. Shawn’s kid, Danny (Boyd Holbrook), is every bit the spoiled son of a wealthy gangster. Jimmy’s estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) is an earnest father of two who drives a limo and mentors kids at his local boxing gym. Mike has violence in his blood like his daddy, but uses boxing to channel it. It’s important to Jimmy that Mike never goes all the way bad like he did. Hurt but don’t kill: That’s pretty much all he can offer as a father, and Mike resents him for it. Though Danny and Mike’s run-in is incidental, Danny decides he’s gotta kill him. So that’s the setup: a blood feud between two fathers and two sons, one night, New York City.
This is the first of Neeson’s recent action-revenge films I’ve seen, but it’s not like I’m ignorant about the phenomenon. It’s hard to miss the ads. I knew what I was getting into. He’s a badass, a simple man with a talent for violence. He drinks, fights, farts in his sleep, claims to have a 12-inch penis and drives an ’85 Camaro (standard transmission). The ’80s Camaro is a good metaphor for the film. A car like that’s got power but will definitely knock and rattle along the way. She might throw a rod and leave you stranded. But if you’re good to her, learn to baby the clutch and even start in second gear, she’ll get you where you’re going, and pretty fast, too.
In Run All Night, the aim is not originality and a good half-dozen one-liners are straight-up lifted from other movies. The transitions feel inspired by the zoom feature on Google Maps and the fight sequences become routine and predictable. The characters are familiar, minimal setup required. Identities are borrowed from Bronson and beyond; you’ve seen it before, just ride it out. Truth be told, action isn’t my thing. Die Hard is one of my least favorite films. Usually when an action sequence begins, my eyes glaze over and I start to think about my problems. By the time the narrative resumes, I’ve exhausted myself with worry and usually fall asleep. But not this time, no spacing out. I knew if I was gonna enjoy this film, I’d have to stay engaged.
I’m glad I did, since Nick Nolte makes an appearance as Neeson’s twice-as-grizzled older brother. I’m not trying to be cute, I only understood about 10 words he said, but his performance made it all worthwhile for me. Also, Common shows up, playing a professional killer among professional killers. He wears phosphorescent, neon-green night-vision spectacles and eventually gets half his face burned off. As Neeson points out, he’ll never quit until he’s killed his target — even with a gaping wound on his face, he relentlessly pursues Jimmy and Mike to the very end. I found that inspiring.
OK, I’ve talked some trash but the cast is good. Neeson, Harris, Kinnaman and Holbrook are all doing what they can to push the story forward. Not every movie’s destined to win the Palme d’Or, but they go to work and lay it on the line out of respect for the audience. And I like this director, Jaume Collet-Serra. I’ve only seen one other of his films (Orphan) but I can tell he’s good at what he does. These movies have to be made. They are the Law & Order of cinema. They have existed for ages and will do for evermore. People pocket good money for making films like this and something has to play at multiplexes in March. It’s practical for business. And though I may seem like an entitled wet blanket, I’m not above this type of film. It’s cool to see a movie with zero pretension. A lot of people want this exact thing when they go to the theater and Warner Bros. knows that better than anyone.
Man, I wish I had more to say about this film. It comes exactly as advertised and I doubt I’ve written anything you didn’t already know. I did like the ending quite a bit; it has some weight. It reminds me of a great ’70s crime thriller I saw called The Nickel Ride, about a remote showdown between big city cops and gangsters. I guess that happens in a lot of “on the run” movies.
If you’re still reading this and you happen to be a Neeson completist, then go see it without a second thought. If you really like action movies, this one might work for you. If you’re a no-fun-having fuckhead like myself, consider your options before committing to this film.