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
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.