Directed by: Mark Williams
Distributed by: Briarcliff Entertainment
Written by Patrick Hao
It’s almost hard to remember a time before Liam Neeson inexplicably became the king of the Dadsploitation action film. Yet, more than a decade after the first “Taken” was released in theaters, Neeson is still pumping out three of these releases a year. The quality of each varies depending on the ratio of artistry to tax laundering, but Neeson always seems like he is trying his best to be engaged. “Blacklight” might be the first one of these films in which Neeson seems too tired to carry.
A lot of that could be placed on director and co-writer, Mark Williams. While Williams’ ambitions are to create a paranoid political action-thriller, ala a Robert Ludlum novel, his skill level is clearly not up to par. His depiction of the socio-political climate of today almost violates the uncanny valley in how much he tries but fails to accurately reflect and comment on the social unrest of today. There’s an inexplicable scene in which FBI agent Travis Block (Liam Neeson), a fixer of sorts, is sent to save an undercover agent from being attacked by White Nationalists after discovering her identity. You can sense the desperation in the filmmaker wanting to be of the “NOW.”
“Blacklight” even begins with an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-esque politician (Melanie Jamson) who is killed in an assassination attempt made to look like a hit-and-run. Mira Jones (Emmy Laver-Lampman), a journalist, suspects there is something more to this killing and begins to investigate, stumbling upon a conspiracy known as Operation Unity. The lampoonish depiction of a newsroom adds to the uncanny valley effect. Agent Block is sent by FBI Head and J. Edgar Hoover enthusiast, Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn) to stop the leak of the conspiracy. Like all Liam Neeson archetypes, he loves his family, but his job has gotten in the way too many times that he is estranged from them. Neeson, here, has a granddaughter (Gabriella Sengos) whose precociousness ratchets up to ten. As Agent Block learns more about the conspiracy his faith is tested, and, as a result, he becomes a target to eliminate as well.
Unlike good political thrillers that Williams wants this to be, like “Three Days of the Condor” or “All the President’s Men,” this film is actively devoid of any tension. At an overlong hour and 45 minutes, the film meanders too long in trying to establish Neeson’s family life. Any scenes of suspense are undercut by over-lit sets and dull shot/reverse-shot editing.
The dullness was only curbed by the creeping thoughts of whether Liam Neeson needed knee surgery with how hobbled he looked. He is so slow and lumbering, the big action set piece, strains credulity as Agent Block is able to avoid all the bullets shot at him. There are also moments of amusement as using Melbourne, Australia as a stand-in for Washington D.C. is a contender for the “Rumble in the Bronx” memorial award for most ludicrous use of a different city as another.
Credit can also be given to any scene involving both Aidan Quinn and Liam Neeson as foes. They are both such accomplished thespians, who have previously shared the screen in “The Mission,” “Michael Collins,” and “Unknown.” With “Blacklight,” Quinn delivers every generic line with the appropriate amount of venom, and Neeson throws it right back at him. It’s like watching a baseball Old Timer’s Day in which two greats play glorified softball with each other. There is familiarity between the two and they, as the kids say, understood the assignment.
“Blacklight” should and could have been much more fun than it is. But its jumbled-up political ideas and lack of any cinematic tension sink the film to the bottom of Neeson’s current action movie run. Maybe this is a sign that any luster left on this era of Neeson’s career is coming to end. Actually, there’ll probably be four more of these by the end of the year.
“Blacklight” is in wide theatrical release.