Oddly enough, it might count as something of a triumph that the new Liam Neeson dadsploitation flick Blacklight feels like such a letdown. Partly because Neeson’s most recent run of roles, while not exactly distinguished, has been at times interesting and moving enough that we’ve come to expect more from these pictures. Films like Cold Pursuit, The Marksman, and The Ice Road may be of varying quality, but they still offer intriguing variations on the Neeson persona. The actor, as we already know, likes to play sensitive tough guys looking to protect/preserve/save their loved ones, but he often does so with an unusual degree of commitment and psychological authenticity than most other actors who tackle such parts. Blacklight certainly has some of that, but it settles for such generic action, character, and story beats that it makes one long for the glory days of Honest Thief.
That’s not a specious comparison, by the way. Honest Thief (2020) and Blacklight were both directed by Ozark co-creator Mark Williams, and he invested that earlier title with a streamlined melancholy that served both his star’s plainspoken sincerity and the story’s general mood of simmering dread. Blacklight has a similar stripped-down quality, but here it feels less like an aesthetic choice and more like a lack of effort. No element of the narrative is presented with the modicum of detail required to make us care about what’s happening and to whom — which is a shame, because if you squint really hard you could see the beginnings of an intriguing political thriller in there somewhere.
As Travis Block, an FBI veteran who specializes in extracting agitated undercover agents from dangerous situations, Neeson doesn’t have to do much ass kicking this time around; he mostly drives and talks. Most of the physical stuff in the film comes courtesy of Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith), an undercover agent in the midst of an identity crisis over the mysterious death of a young, inspiring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez–style politician (Mel Jarnson). When Dusty tries to approach a Washington, D.C., reporter, Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman), with what he knows, Travis springs into action to try and stop him. Of course, Travis himself has no idea about what Dusty has done or what the troubled agent actually knows; our hero merely does the bidding of FBI head Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn), an old Vietnam War buddy who has ruled Travis’s entire world and has spent decades using him in highly sensitive missions. And Gabriel, we can already tell, is up to no good. (That’s not a spoiler; the trailer gives all that away, and besides, why would you cast Quinn as the head of the FBI if he wasn’t going to get up to some stuff?)
There are all sorts of promising ideas here, not the least of which is the onscreen reunion of Neeson and Quinn, two veteran Irish actors who have worked together several times over the course of their respective careers. (They first teamed up in 1986’s The Mission, though their most notable collaboration was probably playing revolutionary partners and romantic rivals in Neil Jordan’s epic 1996 biopic Michael Collins. Also, in the 2011 amnesiac thriller Unknown, Quinn’s character mysteriously replaced Neeson’s.) Here they have a kind of Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster vibe: Travis is the trusting muscle that the ambitious and ruthless Gabriel has manipulated for his whole career. It’s fun to watch these two actors, who are good friends in real life, facing off; you can sense the currents of familiarity running between them. If only the script gave them something more beyond the most generic exchanges. Even so, Quinn knows to deliver an uninspired line such as “We are in this to the end” with a knowing gleam in his eye.
The film does offer one intriguing fold in Neeson’s characterization. Travis is obsessive-compulsive, which probably comes in handy when you’re a guy who always has to make sure he knows how many exits there are in a room. But even this element feels haphazard and half-hearted, more like window dressing than anything anyone has put any thought into. We do get some shots of Travis repeating certain actions and rearranging objects on tables and in closets, but this trait never comes into play in any consequential way. When Travis’s daughter, Amanda (Claire van der Boom), complains that she never had a proper childhood and is afraid that her own daughter won’t get to have one either, that clearly relates more to our tough-guy hero’s paranoia than his compulsive behavior; this is not a new complaint in Neeson-land.
These missed opportunities might have been forgivable had the film’s genre elements not felt so impoverished. Surely, a movie about the FBI killing people in broad daylight on the streets of Washington, D.C., could have done with some atmosphere, some detail, to try and sell us on this intriguing (though not exactly original) idea. Alas, it’s all basically reduced to a couple of nondescript agents lifelessly trying to kill our heroes in curiously empty and nondescript environments — serviceable but also forgettable. (It’s no surprise to discover that Blacklight was shot in Melbourne, Australia.) Meanwhile, scenes of Mira at work as a reporter suggest that neither director Williams nor writer Nick May has been within a mile of any actual newsroom. Part of the fun of movies like this is the opportunity for the audience to immerse themselves in the procedural minutiae of these worlds, but there’s precious little of that here. Everything is so empty, so incomplete. Blacklight feels like a synopsis waiting for a story.
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