It’s February which means it’s the time of the year for yet another Liam Neeson movie. February seems to be the month of choice for these cookie-cutter action thrillers starring the gruff Irish-born screen veteran. Since taking off as an unlikely action hero with 2008’s “Taken”, Neeson (who turns 70 this June) has carved out his own niche and these movies have almost become a genre all their own.
Most of these films follow a fairly familiar blueprint and it’s often hard to differentiate one from the other (their aggressively generic titles don’t help). The similarities between these movies often comes down to the ingredients. For example, Neeson’s characters almost always have some kind of military or special forces background. There’s often some kind of connective family tissue that’s intended to raise the stakes (although if you’ve watched enough of these you pretty much know how they turn out). And there is always a call for Neeson to unleash his “very particular set of skills”.
His latest venture “Blacklight” comes packaged with the hilariously bad tagline “They’re Gonna Need More Men” and it’s the first of two Neeson flicks set to release during the first half of 2022 (the other being the Martin Campbell directed “Memory” in April). His character, Travis Block fits the above archetype to a tee. He’s ex-military who now works “off the books” for the FBI. His strict dedication to his work made him a rotten husband and father, yet he’s determined to make up for it by being a better grandfather. But to no surprise, those dreams of domestic bliss are abruptly (and predictably) interrupted.
Travis is the long-time friend and right-hand man to FBI Director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn). The two served in Vietnam together and now Travis runs covert missions for Robinson, pulling compromised agents from deep cover assignments. Travis is loyal, dependable and never questions orders which makes him invaluable to Robinson. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Robinson is a little shady. His fanboy affection for J. Edgar Hoover is concerning enough, but there are plenty of other red flags that pop up along the way.
When not secretly rescuing agents from white supremacist militias or underground terrorist groups, Travis works hard to make amends for his past failings as a father. But the OCD that makes him so good at his job has festered into paranoia which drives his daughter Amanda (Claire van der Boom) up the wall. From putting up security cameras at her house without her permission to teaching his granddaughter Natalie (Gabriella Sengos) to memorize all the exits in every building she enters. These scenes add a lighthearted touch, but it’s hard to tell if they’re meant to be played straight or as comedy.
Travis’ work and family inevitably collide after he’s tasked with bringing in a disillusioned young agent named Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith). Dusty claims to possess damning information related to the recent murder of a fiery congressional candidate (who’s shamelessly modeled after AOC). Travis tries to get to Crane before he can turn his evidence over to a tenacious reporter named Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman). Robinson turns out to be involved and he’s determined to erase anyone connected, Travis and his family included.
Director Mark Williams keeps things going at a reasonably good pace, but he has a hard time generating much suspense. That’s because there are no big twists or surprises to be found anywhere. All of the story pieces are laid out early, and they eventually fit together exactly the way you expect them to. And while I like the idea of fearless journalists exposing government cover-ups and Travis reckoning with his government-sanctioned past, none of those angles take the story in any unexpected direction.
And the movie isn’t helped by its unsatisfying ending. Perhaps its another casualty of predictability, but it’s almost as if Williams wasn’t quite sure how to end his story. We end up with something overly tidy, remarkably shallow, and just generally hard to swallow. It more or less just wraps things up, filling the final five minutes with corny dialogue and one of the worst final confrontations you’ll find in a movie.
“Blacklight” may have enough to win over the most ardent fans of these Neeson thrillers. For everyone else, this is more of the same but with even less energy and grit. Also (and I hate to say this), this is a case where Neeson’s age really shows itself in the action scenes. It’s certainly not his fault, but in movies like this where buying into the action is crucial, it becomes a pretty big issue. “Blacklight” opens today in theaters.