Thrillers are the grimmest genre as far as new releases are concerned, a graveyard where signs of life are few and far between. So it’s a good thing we can count on Liam Neeson to periodically save the genre from extinction.
Starting with “Taken” a decade ago, Neeson has transformed himself into an action hero who will go to any and all lengths to write wrongs and kick ass. Now comes “Honest Thief,” the first collaboration between Neeson and director Mark Williams. As in the previous thrillers (“Taken,” “Unknown,” “Cold Pursuit“) “Honest Thief” puts a decent, middle-aged man into an impossible situation and watches as he tries to claw his way out of it.
Neeson stars as Tom, a bank robber who cracks safes so smoothly he’s known as the “In and Out Bandit.” After a successful job, he rents a locker at a Boston storage facility, where he meets Annie (Kate Walsh), a grad student. A year later, Tom is ready to move in with Annie, but he doesn’t want his criminal past eating at his conscience, leading him to make a deal with the feds: Minimal jail time and all the money returned. Sounds fair, right? Not when one of those feds is played by Jai Courtney, whose brand is amorality.
When Officers Nivens (Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos) investigate Tom’s case, they find the money stashed in a storage unit. They also find that if they frame Tom for an officer’s death, they can run off with the money scot-free. It’s all buildup for Neeson’s fugitive-on-the-run act, in which he finds the nearest hardware store, stocks up on materials, then unleashes a hailstorm of bombs, bullets, burnt rubber, broken glass, and bruised fists.
Fugitives have always been great for thrillers—going back as far as 1949 when “The Third Man” thrilled and terrified audiences. Williams makes good use of the limitations, opportunities, and unique characteristics of this particular fugitive, with his puppy dog eyes and cool composure. Part of the fun of “Honest Thief” is watching Tom remain calm as the world spins out of control around him, becoming increasingly more preposterous as he outruns an entire police department.
In the current state of Neeson’s career, he’s a man with a particular set of skills. And here, he’s ex-military, trained to outwit those around him. As the mystery deepens, his tactics evolve, not content with just surviving, but surviving with his girlfriend in tow. He reaches out to Agent Meyers (Jefferey Donovan), who adds a layer of depth to an otherwise anti-police story.
The plot suffers, perhaps, from straddling too many storylines at once, and there’s a notable lack of suspense at times. We bounce among five threads, spending time, for instance, with Annie while other characters get short shrift. The pacing is stiff. The dialogue is Hallmark meets Bruce Willis. Explaining why he wants to turn himself in, Tom tells Agent Meyers, “I met a woman. She’s smart, caring, driven, funny. I want to be with her for the rest of my days…and she means more to me than all the dollar bills in the world.” Try saying that with a straight face and you’ll realize why Neeson is paid the big bucks, why his “vengeful dad” routine is bar none.
Ever since “Taken” turned an elaborately lurid genre into an award-winning dad movie, theaters and TV screens alike have been filled with old men and their young trackers, trapped in a bloody game of cat and mouse. It takes a lot to make one of these work (“John Wick,” “Cold Pursuit”). But while the genre has turned into a graveyard, Neeson continues to prove that he can walk among the tombstones. [C]
“Honest Thief” arrives in theaters on October 16.