Liam Neeson was a celebrated actor for much of his career, but he found a second wind at fifty-six with the blockbuster success of Taken in 2008. He became an action-star overnight, and a steady flow of genre efforts followed ranging from the fantastic (The Grey, 2011) to the abysmal (Taken 3, 2014). Neeson famously retired from action films back in 2017 — an announcement that was followed by The Commuter (2018), Cold Pursuit (2019), Honest Thief (2020), The Marksman (2021), and The Ice Road (2021). There’s once more rumbling from the actor that he might leave the genre behind, and as his latest action effort hits theaters it’s clearer than ever that retirement would be the right call. You don’t need an ultraviolet light to see everything wrong with Blacklight.
Travis Block (Neeson) works for the FBI as an off-the-books “agent” tasked with reigning in real agents who’ve gotten out of control. Some get too deep in their undercover work, others buckle beneath the stress, and Block comes in to keep them quiet, safe, and out of the public eye. His latest assignment involves Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith), a young agent who’s discovered a crisis of conscience regarding some recent missions and is attempting to spill his story to a local reporter named Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman). FBI Director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn) can’t have that, obviously, but he may not be able to hide those darker truths from Block for much longer.
A splash of bodily fluids would have been preferable to what Blacklight is actually selling as it’s a generic as hell tale told poorly. Director/co-writer Mark Williams previously worked with Neeson on Honest Thief, a simple enough thriller that finds life in its character beats and sincerity. The duo manages neither of those here and instead delivers a flat, uninspired, and unconvincing thriller with a woefully bad script — a script co-written by Nick May and based on a story idea by Brandon Reavis, and no it shouldn’t surprise you that Blacklight is the sole IMDB credit for both of them.
From the opening murder of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knock-off to the big reveal that the FBI is blatantly killing American citizens for some unspecified reasons, it’s clear that the most basic of thoughts went into creating a shadowy plot. That’s all an action film really needs on the narrative front, but it only works when the film’s other elements — characters, visuals, and action (duh) — all step things up a notch or two. We get none of that here as side characters are as dull as the storyline, and the action is competent without ever feeling truly exciting. Car chases through Washington, DC (by way of Melbourne, Australia) are staged well-enough but unfold with an unfortunate lifelessness.
Williams also insists on giving Blacklight the occasional visual tweak in the form of a very quick camera zoom/shake, but it serves no purpose other than distraction from everything else. Is it meant to illustrate Block’s “condition” which turns out to be obsessive compulsive disorder? Who knows, but even there the OCD is referenced so sparingly and has no bearing on the story that it feels like an unnecessary complication for a character who’s already motivated by a ceaseless paranoia. It’s gotten so bad that his daughter isn’t sure she wants him around his granddaughter, and who can blame her? Especially after he’s late to pick the girl up from school and then leaves a violent fugitive handcuffed in the school parking lot for an hour — he escapes, obviously, and we get a chase!
The journalism angle is equally underwhelming as Jones’ efforts to chase the story, along with her “struggles” in the newsroom, never feel as real or weighty as they should be given the subject matter — the FBI is killing innocent Americans! A subplot involving her dickish editor exists solely for an impending contrivance, and while Robinson’s guilt is played as a surprise it’s obvious to anyone who watches movies as you don’t cast Quinn unless he’s going to turn out to be a prick.
Blacklight deserves to be the final nail in Neeson’s action career — both because it’s bad and because at nearly seventy-years-old the man simply isn’t up to the task anymore — but he currently has three more action/thrillers in post-production. His fight scenes are few and far between here, and instead he’s mostly relegated to shooting bad guys and sitting in the driver’s seat for green-screen chase scenes, but more importantly, his heart just isn’t in it anymore. Look at the conviction in his performance in Taken, and then watch as he tries to convince someone that Robinson is a bad guy here. “We’re just bullets in his chamber.” he says to one of the murderous agents in a laughable attempt to turn the man around, and it’s just one more empty clunker in a film filled with them.
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