Director: Mark Williams
Cast: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Taylor John Smith, Claire Van Der Boom, Andrew Shaw, Zac Lemons, Gabriella Sengos
Runtime: 1 hr 45 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 24 February 2022
Synopsis: A troubled off-the-books fixer for the FBI Travis Block (Liam Neeson), tasked with pulling undercover agents out of dangerous situations, finds himself in the middle of a deadly conspiracy when an undercover agent starts questioning the very people he’s working for. Block, must not only track down the agent, but also find out the truth. A truth that may strain even his questionable moral code.
Would you believe that it has been more than 10 years since Liam Neeson demonstrated his particular set of skills in ‘Taken’? Even more admirably, would you believe that the going-on-70 actor is still at it, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, has managed to keep up the pace of one such action thriller every few months or so? His latest, ‘Blacklight’, sees Neeson continue to play a sensitive tough guy who has to protect his loved ones, this time as a damaged Vietnam War veteran-turned-FBI operative who has to ensure the safety of his daughter and grand-daughter after his notice of retirement is rejected by the director of the FBI.
As formulaic as that may sound, the opening does give hope that ‘Blacklight’ might try to be something more. After a charged rally at the Capitol, a young, charismatic, Latina politician not unlike real-life Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is assassinated in a hit-and-run outside her apartment. Cut to our introduction to Neeson’s Travis Block, who drives a sleek dodge muscle car to rescue an exposed undercover FBI agent from a powder-keg situation at a white supremacist trailer park. The political undercurrent is unmistakeable, and we dare say deliberate, but intriguing as it may be, never quite materialises into anything compelling.
Certainly not the occasional lectures by FBI director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn), who keeps a picture of J. Edgar Hoover by his desk; whilst it is entirely clear what law enforcement ethics he subscribes to, he is no more than a caricature intended to give Block an antagonist that he can go head-to-head with. Or for that matter is there any finesse given to his so-called Operation Unity, which is a laughable two-man programme that Robinson is the mastermind of. Oh yes, there is ripe political commentary to be mined here, but director/ co-writer Mark Williams seems barely interested in turning his movie into something more than generic genre fare.
The by-the-numbers plotting therefore sees Block being assigned to fix rogue agent Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith) and stop him from divulging Operation Unity to fledging reporter Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman), before developing a conscience and becoming an unfortunate target of Robinson himself. Because it is clear right from the get-go that Robinson is the villain, there are hardly any surprises along the way, even more so for those who have seen the trailer and can probably guess how Block reacts after discovering that he is just a pawn in Robinson’s machinations as well as the repercussions he faces for his disloyalty.
Even if the setup is basic, the execution leaves much to be desired. How credible is it that Crane would only entrust Jones with his secret, more so given that the two of them had never met before this? Why would Block not only befriend Jones but go to the extent of sharing his past with her, right down to how he ended up working as Robinson’s fixer all these years? And just how convincing is it that a secret government programme would only have two agents attached to it? Though lauded as a co-creator of Netflix’s ‘Ozark’, Williams has hardly established himself as a director even in the earlier Neeson flick ‘Honest Thief’, and ‘Blacklight’ further underscores how lacking he is.
It all ultimately comes down to Neeson, who to his credit still tries to inject the material with his trademark blend of sincerity and ruthlessness. Indeed, it is always a pleasure to see Neeson do his thing, even if it ends up being a sad reminder of just how much more the actor is capable of. We should add too that age has caught up with the actor especially in his more recent films, and those expecting Neeson to execute the same kind of moves he did in his earlier forays will probably be disappointed; except for one or two scenes, Neeson mostly shoots or drives during the film, so much so that the highlight of the movie is in fact a vehicular chase involving a garbage truck.
Still, despite Neeson’s presence, ‘Blacklight’ is a let-down. The pace is leaden, the plotting is lazy, and the action is at best serviceable. Had it not been for Neeson, we wonder if the movie would even have been made; but that said, we also wonder why Neeson would sign up for such dreck, especially since there is really no need for him to prove himself in this genre anymore. Unless the role offers an exciting spin on his current persona, we’d advise Neeson to let this particular set of skills fade into the black and start reclaiming his status as a critically acclaimed actor who could play characters as disparate and complex as Oskar Schindler, Rob Roy MacGregor and Alfred Kinsey.
(It's high time for Liam Neeson to retire his particular set of skills, and to start reclaiming his status as a critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated actor)
Review by Gabriel Chong