Movie Review ~ Blacklight

The Facts

Synopsis: Travis Block is a government operative coming to terms with his shadowy past. When he discovers a plot targeting U.S. citizens, Block finds himself in the crosshairs of the F.B.I. director he once helped protect.
Stars: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Taylor John Smith, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Claire van der Boom, Yael Stone, Andrew Shaw, Zac Lemons, Gabriella Sengos
Director: Mark Williams
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  You’re at a crowded airline terminal after a long flight, and the entirety of your fellow passengers are huddled around the baggage claim waiting for the bags to descend from the magical conveyer belt from the mysterious area Above. Before I knew better, I would find a way to squirm my way through the throng and get right up in front so I could snag my bag and be on my merry way. Now, I sit back and relax because even if I’m in the head of the line and miss my well-packed piece of luggage I’m too nice to lug onto the plane and possibly whack the older woman in 16C with, I know it will eventually make its way around again for me to grab.

I consider the yearly event of a Liam Neeson soft-boiled action thriller much like that piece of luggage. It too has been all over the world and lived to see a brighter day, and if you miss it the first time it comes around, all you need do is wait, and it will come around again in time. At first, it was humorous that the Oscar-nominated star was taking brief forays into pure popcorn genre entertainment and that the films were so outright entertaining didn’t hurt. The Taken series, which began back in 2008, gave Neeson considerable street cred and created a character for himself that he’s used as the gruff template for multiple movies of varying quality over the better part of a decade now. Occasionally, he’ll land on one that takes off at the box office, but in recent years they’re beginning to feel similar. I quite liked The Marksman when it was released in the early days of 2021 but have missed several of the other generic titles, Ice Road & Honest Thief, also arriving in that same space of time.

Before the release of Memory later in 2022 and the un-dated Retribution (both remakes of foreign films), Neeson kicks off the year with Blacklight, an original story that reteams him with his Honest Thief director, Mark Williams. Filmed in Australia, which unconvincingly stands in for Washington D.C., and frustratingly remains drastically uneven for the duration of its lengthy runtime, it’s not a promising way for Neeson to approach his 70th birthday in June. While it gives an occasional hint it’s bothering to wake itself from a self-induced vegetative state, key performances are D.O.A. and can’t be saved. 

As a fringe operative for the F.B.I., Travis Block (Neeson, Non-Stop) claims to have never killed anyone in all his years serving as the go-to person when F.B.I. Director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn, Blink) needs his specialized services. It’s never made entirely clear what Block does, though. At the start of the film, he’s flying solo saving the day for a cornered undercover agent with a blown cover in hillbilly territory. Later, we get the impression he’s played mentor to multiple officials over time in more of a training role.

One of these former mentees, Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith, Shadow in the Cloud), has been involved with shady dealings about which he wants to come clean. Of course, the F.B.I. can’t let that happen, and so Neeson is dispatched to stop his previous protégé from spilling the beans on national security issues. Discovering too late that what Crane has to say is more dangerous than either of them know, by that point, Crane has involved young reporter Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman, Dog), who is hungry for a juicy by-line. The more involved people, the higher the risk factor, and when his own employer comes after Neeson’s family, well, you can see where this is headed. 

Conceived initially by Nick May and Brandon Reavis and written by May and Williams, Blacklight is the most middle of the road, unsurprising film Neeson has made to date. It’s predictable enough for the viewer to spot any thorny moments early which are designed to be jaw-droppers down the road. The one thing that I could never have anticipated was to see Neeson in the middle of a car chase early in the picture with a garbage truck that changes from one shot to the next. Realizing a vehicle of this size can’t move the way they needed it to, it’s obvious the filmmakers rigged up a flatbed to resemble the main automobile. Still, the editing is such that each time the camera cuts from one angle to another, you’re obviously looking at a different truck.   

I wouldn’t say Neeson is phoning in this performance, but he does appear to be a tad fatigued on this outing. It’s almost like he was doing Williams a small courtesy appearing in Blacklight. There is a bright spot, though. Neeson seems to be enjoying himself in the scenes he shares with Raver-Lampman, a Broadway actress who is graduating to a leading role here and nicely rising above a poorly written part. Together, the two have an excellent crackle in their back-and-forth, and you can easily see why the producers felt it right to pair them together. If only she’d been given more to do aside from huddling around a computer and making obvious statements for audience members that might not be able to follow the flat plot involving a case of not-all-that-shocking government corruption from within. It felt like Smith was a compromise in the role after another actor meant to play the resourceful agent fell through. Called on to play action scenes with hand-to-hand combat, Smith looks like he’s in one of those videos from childhood you made showing your “skills” as a ninja warrior. Not impressed. Coming off more like a young Anthony Hopkins than an old Aidan Quinn, the veteran actor looks the part of an F.B.I. Director but isn’t always convincing us he could ever have got the job in the first place.

Assigned a fantastic title but referring to it only tangentially, Blacklight isn’t going to brighten the day of any fan of Liam Neeson’s, nor will it darken your mood either. There’s something resolutely comforting by which it’s so vanilla but it reaches its big finale that is uncorked with such little fizz I didn’t even know it had arrived until it was over. Neeson hasn’t yet fallen into the Bruce Willis territory of quantity over quality. However, with an increasing number of similar feeling films coming faster and faster, he needs to exercise some caution. I’m hoping these new films arriving soon, both directed by experienced professionals in the genre, help him bounce back to being the unexpected action star he once upon a time proved himself so nicely suited for.

Movie Review ~ I Want You Back

The Facts:

Synopsis: Newly dumped thirty-somethings Peter and Emma team up to sabotage their exes’ new relationships and win them back for good.
Stars: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez, Mason Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Jami Gertz, Isabel May, Luke David Blumm
Director: Jason Orley
Rated: R
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With Valentine’s Day racing toward us, many will be looking for that perfect movie to mark the day, one that matches with the mood they feel best fits the situation. Some may feel drawn to the weepy romance of true love lost, others prefer a madcap comedy that sends lovebirds on the run from a rogue they’ve crossed paths with, or maybe your kind of movie has nothing to do with Cupid’s biggest day of the year. February 14th might be the time you decide you finally need to check Lawrence of Arabia or Cujo off your list. Whatever your target is, libraries, theaters, and streaming services have you well covered. 

As is typical whenever a holiday is near, there’s even last-ditch effort fresh content making a play for your attention, and I Want You Back is one of those movies, and I think it’s one worth considering. Available for free to Amazon Prime Members, this Amazon Studios production features a familiar-sounding set-up that manages to rise above recognizable cliches based almost solely on the striking appeal of its two stars. While the new Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson film Marry Me is opening in theaters and PeacockTV, this easy-to-like production should find a sizable audience who spot it on the Prime Video homepage.

Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger get the awkward stuff out of the way first, with Emma (Jenny Slate, On the Rocks) and Peter (Charlie Day, Vacation) getting dumped by the respective partners, much to their total shock. Peter’s long-time girlfriend Anne (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire) is an elementary teacher longing to pursue her passion for acting but feeling like it’s Peter’s lack of ambition which is the main factor holding her back. Personal trainer Noah (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) has tired of his years pushing Emma to figure out what she wants to do with her life and has met someone new, a pastry chef (Clark Backo, No Running) who has her own bakery. Neither dumpee takes the split very well, and that’s how both find each other nursing their wounds in the stairwell of the generic office complex where both work generic 9-5 jobs.

Realizing quickly they are bonded when it comes to being broken up with most egregiously, Emma and Peter make a pact to support one another through this challenging time. It’s an arrangement that morphs into a plan to block their exes from being happy with their new partners. So, Peter will befriend Noah and, through that bro-ship, remind him what he gave up. Emma will, in turn, ingratiate herself with Anne’s drama teacher boyfriend (Manny Jacinto, Bad Times at the El Royale) by working on his production of Little Shop of Horrors and seduce him away. 

Going into the film, I didn’t think it would be possible to hold my interest for nearly two hours because these movies always tend to end in the same way. The question is always then how will the script keep the ones we know are meant to be together apart just long enough for them to conclude it’s not someone else they want but the person closest to them all along? That lack of suspense can make everything that happens between the first meeting and walk into the sunset feel like filler if you don’t have the right combination of actors, but director Jason Orley (The Intern) has found gold in Slate and Day. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been Day’s biggest fan so far in his film career. While I know he carries a dedicated fan base from his long run with TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Day’s raspy-voiced chirp hadn’t won me over quite yet. The opposite was true of Slate, who I came into the evening enjoying quite a lot. In a strange reversal, I found Day to be the stronger of the two and responsible for more of the heavy lifting and feeling more comfortable with it. We know that Emma has issues around being serious, but a little too much of that acidity can wear an audience down.   Day applies the right amount of bite to his feelings on their situation, making his journey as detailed but allowing audiences to continue to empathize with his broken heart. 

Helping everything along are a few inspired moments of comedy supplied by both stars. Even Day’s typical nervous uncomfortable banter comes across as well-tuned to the character he’s playing, and Slate takes that and plays off it nicely. Not to be outdone, Slate gets a surreal sequence when she finds herself stepping in at a last-minute technical rehearsal of the junior high musical she’s faked her way into working on. The hilarious image of her singing a duet with a boy half her height and not nearly old enough to drive is one that will stay with me (in a good way) for some time.

Where I Want You Back cuts some corners are the supporting players. It’s not an issue with the actors, but how the exes are written. It’s much easier to root for Emma and Peter to wise up and see they don’t need the people who dumped them if the characters are sour, and that’s mostly how Aptaker and Berger have sketched them. Anne lacks faith in Peter and projects her lack of drive on him, which then causes him to question his own goals. Did Emma need Noah to remind her she hasn’t done much with her life, or did she need a supportive partner that walked alongside her? It’s bad enough in movies when one character is blinded by a love that has long since burned out, but here we have two. At least Rodriguez and Eastwood soften some of those coarser edges. Eastwood has a strong showing here, and it’s one of his best screen roles so far in a career that hasn’t been as dependable as his famous father.

I know that not everyone embraces Valentine’s Day as the happiest of holidays, and maybe it is one of those days that’s been craftily promoted through the years by the greeting card companies. There is a way to take back the day, and that’s through making Valentine’s Day about you more than any commercial product. If you find yourself single, celebrate “you.” Those with significant others should have something up their sleeve. I’m not saying that surprising them with a movie night on the couch with I Want You Back wouldn’t earn major brownie points…but a brownie couldn’t hurt either.

I Want You Back will be available on Prime Video
Friday, February 11