March 17, 2015
Run All Night is a movie about tired men forced into motion. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson are happiest when sitting down, but their violent past conspires against their leisure, pitting them against each other in a fleet, melancholy NYC thriller. In theaters now, it is the third collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson (following Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014)), and they have proven to be ideal, adaptive collaborators. Unknown was adventurous in its Berlin location-shooting and experiments in POV. DP Flavio Labiano shot with a 35mm and Super 16mm camera locked side-by-side, a prism redirecting the same image to both cameras. They underexposed and force-processed the 16mm, creating a “broken but beautiful, dreamy kind of image” that they could use for Neeson’s amnesiac perspective. On Non-Stop they traded location challenges for the constraints of shooting on a single set — the interior of a plane making an international flight. Since it was an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Labiano used tilt-shift lenses that would localize focus on individuals that Neeson was investigating. The story of Run All Night is less tied to Neeson’s perspective, so it is Collet-Serra’s most expansive, open-air production yet. With DP Martin Ruhe, Collet-Serra isolates Neeson and Joel Kinnaman, playing his son, in high angle establishing shots and CGI transitions that sweep through most of the five boroughs. Run All Night is a city movie, but it’s more about the old NYC that Harris and Neeson carry in their heads than the current metropolis, passing them by.
In Brad Ingelsby’s script Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a former hitman for the Westie gang once led by Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy tries to drown out his past with booze, and has long since become estranged from his ex-boxer/limo driver son Mike (Joel Kinnaman). Jimmy has become a punchline for the remnants of Shawn’s gang, who now hang out at a decrepit Irish Pub called The Abbey, remembering better days. Mike is reduced to playing a soused Santa at Maguire’s Christmas party to keep himself in cigarettes and porn money. But Shawn’s deadbeat son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) gets enmeshed with a track-suited group of Albanian heroin pushers, leading to a gruesome confrontation that Mike witnesses. Soon Mike is the target of Shawn’s whole operation, and the only person who can keep him alive is Jimmy. The cops, the Maguire gang, and an independent killer (Common) are all after Conlon blood. Mike has to bury his resentments against his deadbeat dad long enough to help him survive.
As in the underseen A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson has perfected a weary urbanite stroll, his shoulders a little rounded as if expecting shit to be dumped on him. Again an alcoholic (as in Walk and Non-Stop), society has pushed him farther to the edges of society. He lives in an unheated apartment next to an elevated train, warming himself by the glow of the Rangers-Devils game on the TV, the progress of which marks off the time of the movie. Ed Harris, who was acting in eight Broadway shows a week in between shooting, looks even more exhausted and cadaverous, his character rendered moot in modern NYC. Early on he complains that he used to lend money for people to buy a butcher shop, and now that shop is an Applebee’s. There is no neighborhood left, shrunken down to his bar, The Abbey, and his few aging, paunchy friends (including friendly character actor face Bruce McGill). Shawn feels increasingly irrelevant, and spends most of the film reminiscing about what used to be. When circumstances turn him against Jimmy in a battle neither will likely survive, it feels like the two old friends are doing each other a favor. The Neeson-Harris tete-a-tetes are thrilling sequences of underplaying, as decades of friendship are eviscerated in a few words over cocktails.
For a director of disreputable genre pieces, Collet-Serra has attracted an extraordinary run of actors since he was forced to direct Paris Hilton in the still pretty good House of Wax (2005) remake. Aside from Neeson, Orphan featured Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga, Unknown had Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella, Non-Stop cast Julianne Moore and, in a small pre-Oscar part, Lupita Nyong’o. For despite all of the flash of his action filmmaking, his features are very patient, actorly films. They all build slowly, paying attention to the slightest of character details regardless of the outrageousness of the scenario. Orphan is extraordinary in this regard – it is as much a story of a bourgeois marital breakdown as it is a tiny person slasher movie. Sarsgaard and Farmiga give a master class in passive-aggressive sniping and upper middle class liberal self-absorption.
While Run All Night is the most character-driven of Collet-Serra’s films since Orphan, it still delivers a series of exhilarating action sequences. There is a Mike-Danny footrace through back alleys that hurtles along as the camera is pulled back on a cable. Then there’s a white-knuckle car chase through the streets of Brooklyn that manages to maintain match cuts as a cop car hurtles into a deli facade. And the centerpiece is a multi-part mini-movie in a housing project. It begins as a search for Mike’s boxing pupil “Legs” (Aubrey Joseph), a tightly edited montage of door-pounding and rejection. Then it transitions into an escape, as the police converge on the site, the father and son looking through a way out as they maneuver through the bank of stairwells. The final stage is a brutal fight between the hired assassin and Jimmy, held in a burning apartment. Flaming table legs are the weapon of choice as they two men thwomp each other into submission.
Early on Dirk Westervelt’s editing style feels disruptive and disorienting. His cuts occur a few beats before you expect them to, creating a jagged rhythm. It’s unusual, but as the feature progressed I stopped noticing these awkward beats. I’d have to watch it again to determine whether the editing scheme changes, or if I simply got used to the offbeat cutting. In any case, it ceased to be an issue as the story hurtled along and I was subsumed in this amalgamated NYC. The Abbey, in which the penultimate shootout begins, is cobbled together from exteriors taken from Jamaica Avenue and Woodside, Queens, while the interior was shot in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It is a composite city, situated so a subway is always rumbling overhead, moving forward to connect the various nodes of the story.
These nodes converge into at least one ending too many, but Run All Night provides everything it’s title implies: speed, exhaustion and darkness. Jaume Collet-Serra continues to prove himself as a resourceful genre problem-solver, adapting his technique to the demands of the story. While I would be satisfied with an endless string of Collet-Serra/Neeson collaborations, it would be fascinating to see what this elusive, chameleonic director can do with other subjects. He recently told Entertainment Weekly that “I would like to do a movie with every genre. To me, that would be the complete career—do a comedy, musical. Why not?” Make it happen, Hollywood.