Let’s talk about Liam Neeson…
His career started, as most do, with small, supporting roles. His accent and physique equipped him well for fantasy and adventure parts, playing knights and swordsmen in films such as Excalibur and Krull.
Neeson broke the bonds of genre cinema when he was cast as Oskar Schindler. He received an Oscar nomination for his performance, and from there took the lead in other heavy dramas Rob Roy and Michael Collins.
Even though these roles seemed different on paper, they were cut from the same tartan and forged from the same metal of his early work. Oskar Schindler seemed the exception to Neeson’s rule of the tall brute with a sword or a gun in his hand.
Compare Neeson to another great actor of our times: Tom Hanks. Hanks also began in schmaltzy genre material (comedies mainly) but, in due course, rose to some of the most acclaimed roles of contemporary cinema. For sure, Hanks could still do comedy, but he never wanted to return to those roots fully. He was truly a rising star, ever shooting towards the heavens.
Which way would Neeson go? Would he continue as a leading man in films of distinction or fail to beat his swords into plough shares?
I can’t blame Neeson for answering George Lucas’s call to appear in Star Wars episode one, The Phantom Menace. Who would not want to be part of one of the most epic franchises in film history? But this decision, perhaps, cemented Neeson’s trajectory as an actor. He was destined to have some kind of weapon in his hand, in this case a light saber.
There were feints back to playing the straight laced, as did Neeson when he starred as the namesake in the drama Kinsey. But if there was any doubt about what kind of leading man Neeson really wanted to be, those were put to rest in 2008 when he took the part that may end up defining him more than Oskar Schindler.
In Taken, Neeson, playing Bryan Mills, used his fists and guns in a down the line pursuit and revenge movie. There wasn’t anything especially inventive about Taken, but it wowed audiences. Two sequels followed, and one might say Taken inspired the creation of a genre (or at least a new twist on one) in cinema. Neeson was in his mid-50s in Taken, and suddenly actors who seemed over the hill such as Mel Gibson and Denzel Washington were kicking ass, too. Indeed, I’m not sure the John Wick franchise happens if Taken wasn’t such a smash success.
Now, whether by design, desire, or typecasting, Neeson does not seem to have the ability to get away from Bryan Mills and Taken. In fact, I challenge anyone to find a Neeson movie poster these days in which he’s not in motion, menacing someone with a gun. Maybe it was not possible for Neeson to mirror the career of Tom Hanks. Maybe he didn’t want to. I don’t know the man’s heart, but, approaching 70, it’s quite clear he feels good in his lane.
Why such a long lead up to the film under consideration, titled Honest Thief? Because there’s nothing remarkable about it. This, you might say, is not a promising start, so let me say that Honest Thief is not a bad film. But it’s just another variety of Taken, and I think the makers are relying on the association to sell tickets (it appears in theaters on October 16).
In Honest Thief, Neeson plays Tom Dolan, a bank robber who wants to settle down with the right woman. To do so with a clear conscience, he decides to turn himself in and accept the consequences of his crimes. He’s sure that his one and only will forgive him and be there when he gets out of jail. If you buy this hook you’ll probably buy a lot of the other improbable twists and turns of the story.
I won’t spoil anything, but it’s not as easy as you think it would be to surrender to the FBI. In discovering this hard truth Tom Dolan morphs into Bryan Mills (if the character ever was distinct) and pursues his adversaries without mercy.
There’s one little trouble with watching Neeson in this kind of role now. Indeed, I already mentioned it: his age. Seeing Neeson fight recalls Robert DeNiro in The Irishman. Try as Scorsese did to cover it up, it was cringeworthy to watch DeNiro engage in any kind of physicality. It’s not quite so acute in Honest Thief, but the director is careful to mask the limitations of a senior citizen laying down beatings on FBI agents 30 and 40 years his junior.
Honest Thief hits (pun) close to home, being set in Boston, but clearly the makers never saw Seth Meyer’s late night parody Boston Accent, a spoof about movies that feature, more than anything else, someone with a Boston brogue.
It’s a strange and half-hearted attempt at working cliches into one character. Of the FBI squad pursuing Neeson in Honest Thief, only one player seems to have a pronounced Boston accent. He’s also got a dog and a divorce crammed into his backstory, which never really goes anywhere. As if to remind us of something else too, Robert Patrick shows up in the movie. His name lends weight, but his role is too short and too thin for someone of his stature. It almost feels as if he’s doing the producers a favor, appearing for a few scenes.
I shouldn’t be too harsh. Honest Thief is a watchable movie. It won’t spawn a franchise like Taken did –if that is its intent—but you do want to find out how our felon with the heart of gold will come out of it still bearing some luster even though he’s headed for prison stripes.
Mostly, watching this movie, my thoughts kept returning to the course of Neeson’s career. Every new Tom Hanks project is an event, with Oscar buzz or at least gravitas; whereas, now, a Neeson film is parochial.
Personally, I yearn for more Oskar Schindler and less Bryan Mills but maybe Neeson’s appetite and the marketplace are more compatible with the latter. If so, “Good luck.”
BLAST RATING: TWO STARS
Written and directed by Mark Williams
Cast: Liam Neeson (Taken), Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy), Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice), Jai Courtney (Suicide Squad), and Anthony Ramos (Hamilton), Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and Jasmine Cephas Jones (Blindspotting).
Running Time: 99 Minutes