About halfway through “Blacklight,” Liam Neeson’s 54,796th action movie, someone asks his character how long he’s been doing his job.
“Oh, probably too long,” he replies.
Sorry to flag this — but it’s just such an easy target. Of course, one can charitably wonder if there was any satirical intent behind the line, given that Neeson — we still love him, but more on that in a sec — is mere months from turning 70.
But probably not, because that would presume sophisticated thought had gone into the script, and there’s just no evidence of that. It’s almost as if the dialogue were temporary, laid down during filming to mark the action, with the intent of going back later and polishing it. Only, they forgot the polishing part.
But back to our star. Despite his slower gait, he’s Liam Neeson, so yes, we still believe, implausibly, that he can do this action stuff. He doesn’t run a lot, but he can shoot big guns and blow up cars with grenade launchers to make a point, and we don’t laugh when he warns a powerful man accompanied by armed and nasty bodyguards that “You’re gonna need more men.”
Really, though, someone should reply: “You’re gonna need better material.” Because there’s the rub. It’s not Neeson that’s the problem.
Still, this is what we get for now, so let’s review the rules: In your basic Neeson action film, he’s the grizzled, damaged good guy — or wanna-be good guy — but doesn’t necessarily work for the good guys. And when he realizes they’re not the good guys, he gets angry. Also: He loves his family. Also: His family will be threatened. Also: He’ll do what it takes to save them. With his skills.
We begin at a protest in Washington, D.C., where a progressive politician (too) clearly modeled on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – her name is Sofia Flores – is rallying the masses. Hours later, she’ll die in a hit-and-run. A terrible accident. Or is it?
Meanwhile, Travis Block (Neeson) is being called into action. An off-the-books government “fixer,” he specializes in extracting undercover agents from bad situations. His boss: None other than FBI director Gabriel Robinson (a blustery Aidan Quinn), an old Vietnam comrade.
Block lives alone, in a sleek, low-lit and minimalist apartment, but desires a more stable relationship with his daughter, Amanda, and especially his little granddaughter, Natalie. There’s an effort to show he suffers from OCD and PTSD and some other things. He has to repeat everything three times. His refrigerator and closets are lined with identical items. And he’s paranoid about his granddaughter’s safety, checking the perimeter at her birthday party. “All clear?” the little girl asks. She knows the drill.
Meanwhile we have Mira (Emmy Raver-Lampman), a journalist looking for her next big story who thinks she may be onto something. She has a tantalizing new source, an agent risking his life to reach her. Her self-involved British editor is skeptical, though. In fact, he says at one point: “If you do find something, tread lightly.”
Wait, what? “Tread lightly” on a potentially explosive scoop? It’s only one of the ways in which the portrayal of this (thankfully) fictitious news organization is absurd. Also, like Block’s home, the newsroom is low-lit and sleek and uncluttered. Right. And later, another top editor says in a news meeting: “Sometimes I think it’s better to live in the happiness of the unknown.” Sorry, but what kind of a news organization IS this? Was there no consultant budget?
Anyway, it all comes to a head when Block realizes what his superiors are up to. He teams up with Mira to get to the bottom of it. Needless to say this ups the danger, and now his family’s at risk. And we all know what happens when a Neeson character’s family is threatened.
Director and co-writer Mark Williams keeps the action moving reasonably well, most effectively in a showdown inside a home with another sleek kitchen and a really good wine rack. And while most characters not named Block get cartoonish treatment, the one who fares best is Mira, whom Raver-Lampman infuses with welcome humanity and gumption (a veteran “Hamilton” theater performer, hers is a career to watch.)
As for Neeson, what can we say? He could keep doing this ‘til he’s 80, but surely there’s something better out there. As the film’s closing song goes, “every story needs a hero.” True. But every hero also needs a story. A better one.
“Blacklight,” a Briarcliff/Open Road release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for strong violence, action and language.” Running time: 105 minutes. One star out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP
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