When Blacklight, Liam Neeson’s latest only-in-theaters shoot-em-up, opened with a thinly-veiled AOC railing against corruption and corporate greed at a raucous rally, I was concerned. The Venn Diagram of people who want to watch Liam Neeson kick ass and people who want to see an old white man maim brown people isn’t quite a circle, but there’s certainly some overlap. You never know when a beloved action hero is going to go full reactionary, like Stallone in Rambo: Last Blood. Would Liam Neeson be tasked with killing the fictional AOC before a cabal of corrupt socialists could institute Sharia law in the US?
Then again, was it actually concern I was feeling, or intrigue? “Having good politics” is not generally something we associate with great action-revenge movies. Most of the great action movies of the 80s and 90s are jingoistic nightmares with the id of a 12-year-old boy. In fact, I would argue that tastelessness is exactly we want from a Liam Neeson revenge movie (insofar as “we” want anything from one at all, assuming a Liam Neeson revenge movie is anything more than just a complicated tax sheltering scheme for a foreign financier). Taken kickstarted this whole phenomenon, and if anything made that movie memorable, aside from the great trailer line, it was sheer brutality. Do I care why or whether Liam Neeson gets revenge? Not really, but it’s fun to watch him show up to a nice family dinner and shoot an innocent lady in the arm:
In Blacklight, co-written and directed by Mark Williams, Liam Neeson doesn’t end up having to kill AOC. In fact, he plays Travis Block, an off-the-books FBI fixer whose job is helping deep-cover agents get their heads straight before they can hurt anyone or reveal covert ops. Block has to track down agent Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith) and in the process uncovers a secret deep state plot against the fictional AOC, Sofia Flores (Mel Jarnson). The big baddy turns out to be the FBI director, played by Aidan Quinn, who at one point growls, “This country is ruled by gotcha moments on Twitter!” and “Hoover had Cointelpro, I have Operation U.”
Blacklight doesn’t quite acknowledge the FBI sorta-maybe-probably getting Martin Luther King killed or anything too controversial, but in a very loose sense and graded on a Liam Neeson revenge movie curve, Blacklight‘s politics are reasonably good. In and of itself that doesn’t automatically make for either a good movie or a bad one, but Blacklight is sub-mediocre in its execution, lacking the kind of tasteless brutality that would’ve actually made it interesting.
There is precisely one moment, when Neeson’s character, sitting in the driver’s seat of an SUV, interrogates Quinn’s character in the back, who gives Neeson an answer Neeson doesn’t like, so Neeson slams on the brakes and smashes Quinn’s face into a headrest, that has enough spontaneous physicality to transcend the predictable formula. It’s the only moment, in a film that otherwise consists of barely comprehensible gunfights between actors who may or may not have been in the same room during filming. A lot of thought seems to have gone into how to make a tasteful enough plot for a Neeson revenge picture, which reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of why people watch these movies in the first place. Blacklight is like a nu-metal song preaching quiet introspection.
It seems to me that most of the post-Taken Neeson filmmakers don’t quite understand what they’re making. Which at its heart is a kind of guns-and-knife fight slapstick, with Neeson as the Moe and the armies of faceless terrorists, human traffickers, drug dealers, and child rapists as his Larries and Curlies. Why do they keep kidnapping his wife and daughter?? Probably for the same reason people keep hiring the Stooges to move pianos and cater debutante balls. Blacklight’s filmmakers seem to have spent a lot time trying to figure out why Neeson would have to bonk some heads, and not nearly enough time storyboarding and staging elaborate, gloriously executed head bonks.
Less talking, more bonking, please.