Yes, it’s that time of year again, when Liam Neeson pulls out his particular set of skills and goes to work on bad guys, in order to protect his family or passengers on a plane or whatever. Neeson’s latest vehicle, Blacklight, has him playing Travis Block, a government fixer who extracts deep-undercover agents when things get too hot for them. Rolling around in a souped-up, not-terribly-inconspicuous Dodge Charger, he mainly takes orders from the head of the FBI (Aidan Quinn, looking shockingly like Ted Knight), his buddy and fellow Vietnam vet who keeps a vice-like grip on ol’ dude.
Block would love to retire and spend time with his granddaughter (Gabriella Sengos), mostly to show his daughter (Claire van der Boom) that he can turn off his work life. But, mentally, that’s difficult for him. He also has a serious case of OCD, making his skeptical offspring concerned that his paranoid “quirks” may be rubbing off on her little girl.
Things get more dangerous when Block has to extract an on-the-run agent (Taylor John Smith) out to expose a secret FBI operation that’s apparently all about killing innocent civilians. (We know this because every time someone mentions the operation, it’s immediately followed by, “They’re killing innocent civilians!”) With Block hot on his tail, the agent reaches out to a hungry reporter (Emmy Raver-Lampman), eager to get a scoop that won’t be shut down by her dudebro editor (Tim Draxl). Little do they all know there’s a pair of killers (Zac Lemons and Andrew Shaw) with orders to wipe out whoever gets too close to the truth—and that includes Block.
Filmed during the pandemic in the more controlled environment that is Australia, Blacklight is slick but feels hastily assembled. As much as director Mark Williams (who previously directed Neeson in Honest Thief) labors to make this a shiny actioner, featuring a couple of high-octane, street-obliterating car crashes, the whole thing has a hollow, synthetic vibe. Even the scenes you know for a fact were shot outside look like they were filmed on a soundstage using green-screen technology
Williams and his co-writers, Nick May and Brandon Reavis, came up with a story that’s brazenly simple and rudimentary, even by Liam Neeson action movie standards. (Keep it real: With the exception of The Grey, don’t most of the B-movies he makes leave you feeling dumb as hell for watching them?) Everyone in the cast is playing a woefully underdeveloped archetype, their characters way too one-note to earn our investment.
Blacklight cuts corners everywhere. COVID definitely cast a pall over production; the film’s final act, which should go full bombastic and bullet-riddled, is a more restrained, socially distanced affair. When an officially rogue Block threatens his former boss with the movie’s tagline (“You’re gonna need more men!”), you expect more men to show up. But they don’t; it’s just the same two killers who have been killing everybody in the movie. When it’s all over, the story wraps such a neat bow on everything that’s happened, you have to wonder if the ending is a dream sequence.
As fun as it is watching Oskar Schindler continue to play the role of bad(ass) grandpa, finding ingenious ways to cancel Christmas on trained killers, it’s getting obvious these movies are quick paychecks for the long-in-the-tooth action star. Neeson has basically become a hero for hire, going through the same old motions in one silly shoot-’em-up after another. We already have one Bruce Willis. We don’t need two.