Liam Neeson’s character in “Run All Night” makes Bryan Mills, the actor’s trigger-happy CIA operative in three “Taken” films, look like Oskar Schindler. When we first meet Jimmy Conlon, the sloppy-drunk former hit man is flat broke, dressed in a Santa suit that reeks of liquor, and making vulgar comments about a colleague’s wife. Having murdered 16 or more people — including a relative — Jimmy carries around a burden of guilt that has crushed him into the shape of something hateful.
Nicknamed the “Gravedigger,” Neeson’s antihero is hard to like, let alone recognize as human, even with the reservoir of goodwill that the actor’s fans naturally bring with them to his films, more and more of which feature some version of this damaged soul. Is it any wonder that Jimmy’s grown son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) hasn’t spoken to his father in five years? Just about the only one left with any feeling for Jimmy is Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), the mob boss for whom Jimmy once worked, and whose affection for his former triggerman seems closer to pity.
But even that pity dries up when Jimmy kills Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook), an unpleasant cokehead who was about to shoot Michael. Shawn vows vengeance on his former employee, mustering his army of goons — and a coolly methodical hit man, robotically played by the rapper Common — to kill Michael as son-for-a-son payback. In a bid for the kind of phony redemption that movies of this ilk typically traffic in, Jimmy resolves to save Michael, at all costs.
The film by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in “Unknown” and “Non-Stop,” plays out with the stylish if numbingly schematic brutality of an artsy action flick. Despite some cool camera work and the kind of noir-lite moral ambiguity that barely gets your shoes dirty (courtesy of a shallow script by Brad “Out of the Furnace” Ingelsby), the movie is the cinematic equivalent of junk food. It satisfies the craving for the sensation of nihilism, without its substance. A typical line of Jimmy’s: “Just because I’m not behind bars doesn’t mean I’m not paying for what I did.”
Oh, really? And exactly how is Jimmy paying for it?
By killing more people, apparently. After sobering up quickly enough to strain even the most generous credulity, Jimmy embarks on a one-night mission to protect his son, dispatching Shawn’s henchman and a bunch of cops (who were presumably crooked anyway) with impunity. Whenever Michael himself picks up a weapon in self-defense, Jimmy makes sure to disarm him.
And just why is that? What gradually becomes clear, in a portrait of loathsomeness that is less dramatic than depressing, is that Jimmy isn’t protecting Michael from Shawn so much as he is protecting him from turning into Jimmy.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, drug use, obscenity and sexual dialogue.