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André Bazin once wrote that the great thing about westerns was that they were all essentially the same, and that this gave the makers of each one unlimited freedom. We're getting to the point in which we might say the same thing about Neeson vehicles. Currently one can reasonably expect a Neeson-starring actioner to feature bursts of violence in tight spaces and touch on themes of regret, redemption, and fatherhood. Collet-Serra is by far the most imaginative director to contribute to this cycle of films. To date, he's used these ingredients to fashion a work of spy fiction (Unknown), a Hitchcockian suspense comedy-cum-formal exercise (Non-Stop), and now a modern-dress tragic western. The director cut his teeth on commercials, and he's said in interviews that the medium taught him to devise as many setups as possible for any given shot. I could well imagine Collet-Serra using the myth of Neeson in the service of slapstick, romantic melodrama, or science fiction.
I use the word tragic in the classical sense to describe Run All Night, as the hero's demise is a given from the start of the film. The movie takes place sometime after the decline of a moderately successful Irish crime syndicate. Neeson and Ed Harris play two of the only original members of the syndicate who are still alive and not in jail; Harris was the brains behind the organization while Neeson was their top hit man. Both stood trial for their crimes, and while they managed to get acquitted, the trials engendered so much negative press that the men became pariahs for life. While Harris has managed to reinvent himself as a relatively straight entrepreneur, Neeson has become a worthless drunk. Harris keeps him around less out of loyalty than as a constant reminder of his own shame. The two-hander scenes between these seasoned actors account for some of the movie's best moments, with Neeson and Harris skillfully fleshing out the serious themes of Brad Ingelsby's pulp dialogue. (Remarkably, Harris was performing in an off-Broadway show—The Jacksonian, directed by the Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls—at the same time that the movie was being shot, which might explain the concentration and forcefulness of his acting during the more intimate scenes.)
Does it really matter what circumstances send these men into a life-or-death struggle? For years it seems these characters have been waiting for some catastrophic event—in their bones they know that's what they deserve. (It's the law of the west, so to speak.) Harris orders a hit on Neeson after the latter kills Harris's grown son, who, in turn, was about to kill Neeson's grown son. What gives the story its air of tragedy is the characters' awareness that this cycle of violence is meaningless. It's a combination of bad luck and poor judgment that brings about the death of Harris's son, whom Harris doesn't even like anyway. The former mob boss sees a grotesque version of his younger self in this coked-up hoodlum—his decision to avenge the son's death is little more than a nervous reflex. The same can be said of Neeson's survival tactics. His triumph over his would-be killers isn't heroic, but pathetic, as it's the only thing he knows how to do well.
An irrepressible stylist, Collet-Serra plays this story for at least one rousing action set piece—a showdown between Neeson and another assassin played by Common that spans multiple buildings of a public housing complex. Moving dynamically across both the x- and y-axes, the sequence recalls one of the highlights of director Tsui Hark's career, the climax of Time and Tide (2000). But even the excitement of this passage can't shake the doldrums off Run All Night, nor does the requisite redemption of the Neeson character count for very much. The former thug might make amends with his estranged son, but this happens too late and only as the result of circumstance. That this development represents just a slight variation on the Neeson myth speaks to the melancholy at its core.