All good things must come to an end, and the Liam Neeson dadsploitation craze — which started with the runaway success of the first Taken movie in 2008 and continued through last year’s goofy, grisly snowplow-revenge thriller Cold Pursuit — appears to have entered its sundown years. The man is 68 years old, after all. How many more asses can he kick, and for how much longer? Honest Thief, his latest, doesn’t dance around this reality. It’s a subdued, at times even intimate, old-guy action flick. And that streamlined, bare-bones quality serves the film well. Mostly.
Honest Thief is also tailor-made for Neeson’s onscreen persona, which these days seems to be equal parts regret and rage. This actor, who for so long had exuded a kind of regal, righteous charm, came into his own later in his career playing broken men fighting for the lives they once had. His lucrative run of beat-’em-ups has been dismissed by critics as so much lizard-brain fluff, but there has always been a core of tragic penance to them. As I noted a couple of months ago, the trend started around the time of the tragic 2009 death of Neeson’s wife, the actress Natasha Richardson, and the films he has made since reflect the pain and anxiety of his loss. (He has been admirably open about the real-life agony of her passing over the years.) Over and over, movies like Unknown, The Commuter, and Run All Night feature his character either trying to preserve what’s left of his family or trying to avenge it. Some of his more serious efforts, like The Grey, Widows, or A Monster Calls, or this year’s Ordinary Love and Made in Italy, tackle the theme of grief head-on. But with such bereavement also comes abasement: These films are often steeped in shame, with Neeson’s character having to confront his crimes, his inadequacies, and his failures as a husband, a father, a man.
And so, at the start of Honest Thief, Neeson’s soft-spoken Tom Carter, whose decade-long string of small-town bank robberies gained him the unfortunate nickname “the In-and-Out Bandit,” meets the woman of his dreams — a spunky, middle-aged divorcée named Annie Sumpter (Kate Walsh) — and decides that he must fess up to his sins. Not to her, though: In order to be the decent man Annie believes him to be, Tom attempts to turn himself in to the FBI, hoping to cut a deal so he’ll get only a brief prison stint. The two agents (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) sent to check him out, however, take the stolen money for themselves and attempt to kill him. Tom flees, so the corrupt Feds target Annie. As you may imagine, Tom doesn’t like that at all, not one bit.
It’s a spare story, and as realized onscreen by Ozark co-creator Mark Williams, it’s even sparer. So much of Honest Thief takes place in empty streets, empty storage lots, barren hotel rooms, and underpopulated offices that if you told me the film had been shot during the pandemic, I’d believe you. This somber, dead-end austerity feels right, however. It’s certainly in keeping with Neeson’s low-key performance, which suggests a man quietly racked by guilt and uncertainty even before he attempts to come clean to the authorities. His demeanor makes for a stark contrast with Walsh’s vivacious and warm Annie, who is trying to move on from a messy divorce and rebuild her life. The film thankfully doesn’t take their romance for granted; we can understand what Tom sees in Annie, and what she sees in him, which is critical to the movie’s central conceit of a man finally reckoning with his criminal past thanks to his love for a good woman.
Honest Thief may not be particularly distinguished in its broad strokes, but what it lacks in plot and incident it makes up for with character development, often via brief but lovely little touches. Early on, as Tom waits for the Feds in a hotel room, we may notice one of the lamps flickering. The next time we see him, he has opened up the lamp and is fixing it; the man is, after all, an expert engineer who defused bombs in the Marines, as we later learn. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grace note that speaks both to his anxiety and his can-do spirit.
The film also establishes an odd, cosmic bond between Tom and agent Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan), another, more honest FBI official, who begins looking into our hero’s case after the situation with the other Feds goes south and whose rather messy ongoing divorce provides an ironic counterpoint to Tom’s proclamations that he has found the woman of his dreams. But even this occasionally comic back-and-forth is played in a minor key: Meyers’s sarcastic rejoinders seem more reflective than bitter, in keeping with the film’s mournful quality, and the men’s connection feels like something out of a late-period Clint Eastwood genre piece (which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your tastes).
Much like Eastwood, of course, Neeson can probably keep this twilight-warrior thing going a bit longer. He has already lined up a slew of genre and genre-adjacent pictures, including a variation on The Wages of Fear called The Ice Road. Honest Thief seems to suggest a plausible and compelling way forward, taking advantage of the actor’s melancholy grace without trying to manhandle him into action-figure roles that he’s getting too old for and that handicapped some of the more regrettable efforts of his later years. If this approach works, there might be more money in this bag yet. And who knows? We might get some better movies, too.
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