Review: Liam Neeson and his skills hit copy-paste in formulaic ‘Blacklight’

A man holds a gun
Liam Neeson in the movie “Blacklight.”
(Ben King / Open Road Films)

Liam Neeson came late to action star status because guys get to do that, and the imposing Irish hunk brought his own mix of sensitivity and ruthlessness — I was not going to write “particular set of skills,” I promise — to an avenger genre waiting for revival. But the going-on-70 actor has hinted at winding down that lucrative part of his career, and there’s no better example that the time should be soon than “Blacklight,” the kind of low-wattage, paint-by-numbers thriller that usually signifies a perilous turn toward the action purgatory that is cheap, direct-to-nowhere fare. (See Bruce Willis.)

Neeson’s role here, perhaps not ironically, is someone whose specialty is getting people out of jams, and he soon finds that his line of work is worth bailing from. Travis Block is an extraction expert, first introduced speeding in his sleek Dodge muscle car to a powder keg situation at a white supremacist trailer park hideout where an exposed undercover FBI agent is hiding, mid-breakdown. Block does his thing with some well-placed gas explosions but clearly isn’t in the mood to hear about the mental stress of long-term play-acting with racist wackjobs.

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Block works off the books for FBI Director Gabe Robinson — played by a bored Aidan Quinn — who keeps a picture of J. Edgar Hoover on his desk so we know on what side of the law enforcement ethics line he falls. But Robinson also tells us what he thinks — as the screenplay (credited to Nick May and director Mark Williams) will have its characters do, often, artlessly, repeatedly, as if we’re children. Double agents and their problems are nuisances! DC is run by politically correct cowards! There are “creative ways” of keeping the peace! Fear is a tool!

But working for a casually unrepentant fascist isn’t why Block wants to retire, initially — the good soldier wants to spend more time with his grown daughter Amanda (Claire Van der Boom) and only granddaughter. Before he can do that, he’s tasked with stopping another sweaty, nervy, loose cannon FBI operative named Dusty (Taylor John Smith) who wants to spill the beans to a muckraking reporter (Emmy Raver-Lampman) about nefarious operations undermining democracy. Soon, Block is the one learning things.

Baby’s First Conspiracy Thriller is inept about everything, from how journalism works — why is this so difficult for movies to get right? — to assassin logic to the inconsistencies in its lead character. Block, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder, is supposedly paranoid about his family’s safety, to the extent that his overprotectiveness is a sore spot with Amanda; it’s an early laugh line that he counts the exits at the granddaughter’s birthday party. So it makes no sense that he sets up a security camera outside the daughter’s home only after events get out of control, plus, it’s ridiculously visible and Amanda catches him installing it.

“Blacklight” is initially a theater-only release, but is its true destiny — to borrow a time-killing moniker from the world of multi-task TV watching — as a laundry folder? Williams’ directbot style is painless to absorb, the slick urban blandness not unlike a big city screensaver, while the personality-free, this-is-what-I’m-thinking dialogue certainly doesn’t require anyone to concentrate on what an actor is doing onscreen for extra shading.

There are a couple of serviceable car chases, but they do nothing for the story’s sense of danger, which is nonexistent because of how ridiculously formulaic the whole thing is, like a pamphlet for a thriller. And Neeson mostly looks stymied repeating the same beats as one more pushed-to-the-limits hard case. Elsewhere, he just looks tired. Maybe he was thinking about his post-retirement private beach, those iconic lines from “Taken” taking new form: “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will relax.”



Rated: PG-13 for strong violence, action and language

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 11 in limited release