"Run All Night" is genre to the core, a violent action thriller about a critical 16 hours in the lives of some very bad people, but that doesn't mean there aren't any number of good things in it.
Top of that list are Liam Neeson and Ed Harris, under the same cinematic roof for the first time, playing old friends and New York gangland comrades whose relationship gets turned upside down during those turbulent hours.
Both men have done action before (the "Taken" films have turned Neeson into a lucrative action franchise all by himself), but the opportunity to play off each other has raised their game. The dramatic scenes these two share reflect the commitment of dedicated actors capable of bringing out the emotion in any kind of film. Especially good is Harris, who cared enough about the part to take it on despite simultaneously doing eight shows a week in the Broadway production of a Beth Henley play.
That kind of connection wouldn't happen without the gritty dialogue of screenwriter Brad Ingelsby, whose script includes such dead-on pulp lines as "I had to kill people I loved, there's not enough money to pull me back into that" and "It's a hell of a thing to know you're never going to make the woman you love happy again."
But though "Run All Night" turns out to be a tale of fathers and sons as well as a story of conflict between friends, this is obviously not a straight drama. It's a crime story filled with shootouts and sudden death, and as such it relies heavily on coincidence and contrivance. If you can't roll with those kinds of convoluted plot punches, you're not going to be happy.
It's not only the strength of the acting that pulls us over bumps in the narrative, it's the crisp, streamlined direction of Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed Neeson in the improbable "Non-Stop." The new film is not especially plausible either, but it's hard to find the breathing room to care as lightning-fast editing by Dirk Westervelt compels attention.
Ingelsby initially envisioned the story in Philadelphia, but it was moved to New York City, particularly the outer boroughs, and Collet-Serra clearly was energized by the pace of the metropolis.
Working with cinematographer Martin Ruhe and production designer Sharon Seymour, he gives a more convincing sense of the outer boroughs than fellow European director Michael Roskam did in "The Drop." Collet-Serra was especially attracted to the city's bustling elevated trains and uses their disruptive noise to keep audiences off-balance.
"Run All Night" opens with a classic framing device, with Neeson's Jimmy Conlon flat on his back reflecting on his misspent past. "I've done terrible things in my life, things for which I cannot be forgiven," he says, adding what a glance at his tormented face makes clear: "No sin goes unpunished."
The film then flashes back precisely 16 hours, where we discover that this once-feared gangland assassin nicknamed "Jimmy the Gravedigger" is a bedraggled alcoholic taunted by Det. John Harding (Vincent D'Onofrio), the tough cop who's spent decades trying to bring him to justice.
Most humiliating of all for Jimmy is that he has to ask for handouts from Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), the nasty wastrel son of his old pal and still mob boss Shawn Maguire (Harris), the only man in all five boroughs who cares if Jimmy lives or dies.
Jimmy, it soon develops, has a grown son of his own, though he hasn't seen him in years. That would be Mike Conlon, convincingly played by Joel Kinnaman of Sweden's "Snabba Cash" and the TV series "The Killing." Married to the feisty Gabriela (Genesis Rodriguez) and the father of two daughters, he is a good enough guy to mentor a local kid (Aubrey Omari Joseph) in boxing but he also burns with an all-consuming fury at the amoral dad who ruined his life.
Unfortunately for Mike, in the blink of an eye a series of events too complicated to relate has him on the run with half of New York trying their best to kill him, including an emotionless stone-cold professional killer played by Common (last seen accepting an Oscar for cowriting the inspirational theme "Glory" from "Selma").
And wouldn't you know it, the only person who has a prayer of keeping Mike alive, the only man to possess the required set of acute murderous skills (albeit theoretically dulled by years of hitting the bottle) is none other than his hated father, Jimmy. What a coincidence.
Though one would like to think there are better ways to reconnect with estranged offspring than to strafe everyone in sight, Collet-Serra and his team, expert at staging everything from car chases to close quarter combat, may yet change your mind. Rife with familiar elements given something of a different spin, "Run All Night" manages to leave you out of breath but hungry for more.