Review: ‘Blacklight,’ starring Liam Neeson

February 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Liam Neeson and Taylor John Smith in “Blacklight” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Blacklight”

Directed by Mark Williams

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Washington, D.C., the action film “Blacklight” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An undercover “fixer” for the FBI finds himself enmeshed in a corrupt conspiracy that endangers his life and the lives of others.

Culture Audience: “Blacklight” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Liam Neeson and ludicrous action movies.

Emmy Raver-Lampman and Liam Neeson and in “Blacklight” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Ever since the success of the “Taken” movie series, Liam Neeson has dragged himself down a shameless and shoddy hole of “Taken” ripoff movies. “Blacklight” is one of the worst. There is absolutely nothing original about this movie, which just re-uses and dumbs down plot elements from better action flicks, and then throws in lot of noisy stunts and fight scenes to distract from the ridiculous story. The movie has an awkward mix of gritty violence and ultra-sugary sentimentality. And through it all, Neeson looks like he’s just there for the easy money to play the same type of character over and over in these “Taken” ripoff movies.

“Blacklight” was directed by Mark Williams, who co-wrote the movie’s terrible screenplay with Nick May. Williams’ previous movie was 2020’s “Honest Thief,” which also starred Neeson as yet another grouchy loner with a troubled history and a bad temper. “Honest Thief” was another schlocky, unrealistic action flick, but at least “Honest Thief” tried to have some unexpected plot twists. “Blacklight” doesn’t even try. In fact, about 20 minutes into this 108-minute movie, it’s very easy to predict how everything is going to end.

In “Blacklight,” Neeson plays another “lone wolf” type with a particular set of skills in fighting whomever he fights in the movie. Neeson’s Travis Block character has been working “off the books” as an undercover “fixer” for the FBI. His boss is FBI director Gabriel Robinson (played by Aidan Quinn), who has one of the cheapest-looking and most basic offices that you’ll ever see in a movie for the supposed top leader of the FBI. He might as well be a back-office manager of a toilet-paper company with the type of office that he has in this movie. “Blacklight” is a fairly low-budget film, but the movie’s production design is laughably incompetent.

The story takes place mostly in Washington, D.C., but the movie was actually filmed in Australia. Regardless of where it was filmed, the low-quality cinematography often gives scenes a blue-gray tinge that makes locations look as soulless as a drab slab of steel. And for an action film, “Blacklight” has too many dull moments that aren’t helped by the movie’s subpar editing.

“Blacklight” opens with a political rally led by a progressive liberal politician named Sofia Flores (played by Mel Jarnson), who is obviously supposed to be like this movie’s version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the audience of Sofia’s enthusiastic supporters is Dusty Crane (played by Taylor John Smith), who cheers his approval at everything Sofia says during the rally. Viewers find out later that Dusty is a former FBI agent who went rogue. Tragedy strikes after Sofia leaves the rally: She’s run over by a car, which speeds off.

Meanwhile, Travis is shown coming to the rescue of an undercover FBI agent named Helen Davidson (played by Yael Stone), who is trapped in a house trailer with an angry mob of about 10 to 15 white supremacists taunting her outside. Before Travis arrives, he finds out that Helen had been undercover to infiltrate this white supremacist group. However, Helen’s cover was blown, the mob outside knows she works for the FBI, and now these racists want to get violent revenge on Helen.

Travis does exactly what you think he would do to take on this furious mob that looks like it’s about to set the trailer on fire: He blows something up, and then runs off with Helen through a back door. And if people got killed during this massive explosion, oh well. “Blacklight” is so idiotic, it doesn’t bother explaining why Travis was sent all by himself for this dangerous rescue, when he was clearly outnumbered and had no backup in case things went wrong.

Back at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., Travis gives his boss Gabriel a briefing on what happened with this rescue. However, Gabriel has something bigger that’s preoccupying his thoughts: The death of Sofia is big news, and he wants to squash an investigation that could prove that her death was a planned murder. Sofia’s supporters are putting pressure on law enforcement to investigate her death as a homicide. Gabriel tells Travis that as far as he’s concerned, Sofia’s death was a hit-and-run accident, no matter what “politically correct protestors” want to say.

It’s at this point in the movie, Gabriel might as well wear a T-shirt that says, “Corrupt FBI Director Stuck in a Horrible Movie.” It’s also shown in the trailer for “Blacklight” that Gabriel is the movie’s chief villain. Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Travis and Gabriel did combat together during the Vietnam War. They lost touch with each other after the war. But then, 15 years ago, Gabriel contacted Travis out of the blue to offer him this undercover “fixer” job for the FBI. Travis has been a loyal employee ever since.

However, Travis wants to retire. Why? Because he wants to spend more time with his granddaughter Natalie (played by Gabriella Sengos), who’s about 5 or 6 years old and is a typical cute kid who says adorable things that make Travis feel all mushy inside. Natalie’s mother is Travis’ daughter Amanda Block (played by Claire van der Boom), who has been raising Natalie on her own, ever since Natalie’s father abandoned them. Amanda has abandonment issues because her mother (Travis’ ex-wife) also left the family when Amanda was a child.

The reasons for the collapse of Travis’ marriage remain vague in the movie. However, at one point, Travis remorsefully tells Amanda that he wasn’t a good husband and father, but he wants to make up for it by being the best grandfather he can be to Natalie. “Blacklight” has its sappiest moments when Travis tries to be an upstanding and reformed family man. But it all looks so phony when he does terrible and violent things that he knows are cover-ups for the FBI’s dirty deeds. Travis justifies it in his mind by saying he doesn’t believe in deliberately killing “innocent” people.

Meanwhile, at an unnamed newspaper that’s supposed to be as prominent as The Washington Post, ambitious reporter Mira Jones (played by Emmy Raver-Lampman) and her editor Drew Hawthorne (played by Tim Draxl) talk about the sudden death of Sofia. Mira, who calls Sofia a “voice of her generation,” thinks Sofia’s death could have been a political assassination, and Mira wants to investigate it for the newspaper. Sofia’s death has officially been ruled as an accident, and Drew believes this official report. He decides the official cause of death should be the story that the newspaper should have, so he declines Mira’s offer to investigate further.

Mira doesn’t know it yet, but her world will collide with Dusty and Travis. Dusty has bombshell information about the FBI that he wants to give to Mira. He’s in such turmoil about this information, he’s been drinking heavily and popping pills. That’s what he’s seen doing as he’s parked in his car outside of a police station. And he has an unconcealed, loaded gun next to him on the front passenger seat.

Some cops approach Dusty to ask him why he’s parked there. They see the loaded gun and ask Dusty to step out of the car to arrest him, since it’s illegal for to have an unconcealed weapon in a car. Dusty resists arrest by suddenly assaulting the police officers. He’s outnumbered and easily arrested.

In jail, Dusty gets a visit from Travis, who wonders why Dusty could be so reckless and foolish. Travis is under orders from Gabriel to bail Dusty out of jail and bring Dusty into “special” FBI custody. Dusty tells Travis that he’s going to tell a reporter some information, and he’s not going to let anyone stop him. The information has to do with a secret government conspiracy called Operation Unity.

“Blacklight” is such a stupid movie that when Travis takes Dusty into custody in Travis’ car, Travis doesn’t handcuff both hands behind Dusty’s back. Instead, he has only one of Dusty’s hands handcuffed to a hook near a car window. And then, instead of locking Dusty up in a secure area, Travis takes a detour because he has a parent-teacher meeting at Natalie’s school. Travis leaves Dusty in his car unattended. And you know what that means.

Dusty escapes, of course, and that leads to a lengthy chase scene where Dusty steals a truck, and speeds down streets and on pedestrian sidewalks, thereby causing several car crashes and injuries. Travis races after Dusty in Travis’ car, and at one point their vehicles are side by side, with the windows open. Travis shouts at Dusty, “What the hell are you doing?” Dusty yells back, “I’m going to free my conscience!”

What’s the big rush, Dusty? It turns out that Dusty wants to meet with Mira, to give her the bombshell information that he has stored on a computer flash drive. That’s why Travis ends up meeting Mira too. But things don’t go smoothly for all three of them, of course. And not everyone makes it out alive by the end of the movie.

Dusty manages to escape from Travis and goes into hiding. Two FBI goons with the last names Lockhart (played by Andrew Shaw) and Wallace (played by Zac Lemons) are sent to go after Dusty. And the person who sent them is exactly who you expect it would be. The Washington, D.C. police department is also looking for Dusty since he’s now an outlaw who skipped bail. And, of course, Travis has to hunt down Dusty too.

“Blacklight” is such a sloppily made and terrible movie that it throws in a few things to try to make the characters look “deep and complicated,” but then does nothing with these subplots. For example, it’s revealed that Travis has obsessive compulsive disorder, but there’s barely any evidence of this OCD. The only person in Travis’ life to mention his OCD is Amanda, who tells Travis: “Your quirks aren’t quirks anymore. I sometimes wonder if your quirks changed you, or was it your dirty job?”

Mira has a backstory that’s introduced and then left to dangle as a meaningless plot strand. Travis and Mira end up reluctantly helping each other, because she’s been investigating Gabriel for ordering assassinations of political enemies and whistleblowers. (It’s another plot point that’s revealed in the movie’s trailer.) In fact, the “Blacklight” trailer gives away about 90% of the movie’s plot, including Natalie going missing, and Travis confronting Gabriel before their big showdown.

None of the acting is very impressive, although Raver-Lampman and van der Boom seem to be making an attempt to bring emotional nuance to their characters. Any effort to give a good performance is just wasted on a bad movie that has no intentions of being original in moronically staged and poorly written scenes in this inferior revenge flick. “Blacklight” is as suspenseful as wondering if Neeson is going to star in yet another “Taken” ripoff after making this garbage film.

Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment released “Blacklight” in U.S. cinemas on February 11, 2022.

Review: ‘Honest Thief,’ starring Liam Neeson

October 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kate Walsh and Liam Neeson in “Honest Thief” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films)

“Honest Thief”

Directed by Mark Williams

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Boston area, the action-crime thriller “Honest Thief” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A notorious bank robber battles with FBI agents when he decides to turn himself into authorities.

Culture Audience: “Honest Thief” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching predictable thrillers that have a lot of credibility issues.

Anthony Ramos and Jai Courtney in “Honest Thief” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films) 

If there’s an action drama with Liam Nesson as the star, then you can bet that his character in the movie is out for revenge. The problem is that Neeson has made so many of these types of “revenge movies” that they all blend together after a while, except for the “Taken” franchise which is its own separate beast. Therefore, it’s understandable if viewers really can’t tell one Neeson pulpy thriller from the next one. At least with “Honest Thief,” the title is a reminder of what type of character Neeson portrays in the movie. The film’s title might be distinctive, but the movie’s mediocre plot and action definitely are as generic and unimaginative as they can be.

In “Honest Thief” (directed by Mark Williams), Neeson plays Tom Dolan, also known as Tom Carter, a notorious bank robber whose modus operandi is to set off explosives to open a safe in a bank while the bank is closed for business. (Tom lives in the Boston area, and Neeson keeps his native Irish accent for this role.) Tom always chooses banks with older safes (which are easier to open) and which are located next to vacant buildings, so the explosives won’t affect a building next door that has an active business.

Tom has robbed 12 banks in seven states over the past eight years. His total robbery haul is about $9 million, and he’s been successfully able to elude capture for all of these years. Law enforcement has no idea who the bank robber is, and the bank robber is nicknamed the In and Out Bandit by the media, because of how quickly and efficiently he commits the crimes.

But Tom’s life is about to change when he meets Annie Wilkins (played by Kate Walsh), who works as a clerk at a place that rents storage units. Tom goes there to rent a medium-sized unit, which viewers can immediately tell is where he’s going to hide money that he stole from the bank robberies. Tom and Annie flirt a little during this transaction, which indicates that Annie might just become more than a passing encounter.

The movie then fast forwards to one year later. Annie and Tom are now a couple, and they are looking at a big house that Tom is going to purchase in Newton, Massachusetts. Tom then surprises Annie by asking her to move in with him. She’s hesitant because she’s still recovering from a traumatic divorce and is very reluctant to take her relationship with Tom to the level of “live-in partner.”

Annie hasn’t lived with anyone since her divorce. As she tells Tom, “I just don’t want to go through that again.” Tom tells her, “You won’t have to.” And because Annie really likes the house and seems to really love Tom, she then changes her mind and says yes. Annie is studying psychology to become a therapist, which is a skill she’s going to need when she has to deal with all the crazy things that happen to her in this movie.

But what about Tom’s secret life as a bank robber? He’s about to come clean and face the consequences. While staying at the Charleston Hotel, Tom calls the FBI’s Boston office and confesses that he’s the bank robber called the In and Out Bandit. He also mentions that he hates that nickname because he thinks it’s tacky, as if that’s something he should be concerned about in the moment that he confesses to his serious crimes.

The FBI agent who talks to Tom on the phone is Agent Sam Baker (played by Robert Patrick), who listens to Tom’s confession with a great deal of skepticism. Tom tells Baker that he will turn himself in and give back all the money that he stole, on the conditions that he serve a reduced sentence with a maximum of two years, and it must be at a minimum-security prison that’s near Boston.

Baker almost laughs when he tells Tom that the law doesn’t work that way, but Tom stands firm on his demands. When Baker asks Tom why he’s confessing, Tom says it’s because he met a special woman, he can no longer live with the guilt of his big secret, and he wants to start a new life with her after he serves his prison time. Tom hasn’t robbed any banks since he fell in love with Annie.

Tom tells Baker that he’s at the Charleston Hotel in Room 216. Baker then tells Tom that he will look into Tom’s claims, but Baker comments that the FBI has gotten a lot of false confessions from people claiming to be the In and Out Bandit. Tom insists that he’s telling the truth about being the real In and Out Bandit. (And he is.)

While Baker is taking this call, he’s sitting across from his colleague Agent Myers (played by Jeffrey Donavan), who’s even more hard-nosed and more cynical than Baker. Both men have a lot of respect for each other though. Myers considers Baker to be his mentor and closest friend in the FBI.

There’s a minor running joke in the movie that Myers often has his small white-and-brown dog named Tazzie with him. It’s a dog that he doesn’t really want, but he got the dog in a bitter divorce from his ex-wife, who got to keep their former marital home. And, out of spite, he doesn’t want to give the dog back to his ex-wife. Myers doesn’t mistreat the dog, but Tazzie is often seen tagging along with Myers in places that you wouldn’t expect to see a small dog during an intense FBI operation.

The dog’s presence is one of the few semi-humorous things in “Honest Thief,” which takes itself way too seriously for being such a formulaic and substandard movie. (“Honest Thief” director Williams co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Steve Allrich.) There’s plenty of action, but much of it has so many unrealistic consequences, that anyone watching this movie will have to drop any expectations that “Honest Thief” is nothing more than a cheap retread of Neeson’s other “anti-hero” rampage movies, where he gets angry at certain people and won’t stop until they’re all injured or killed.

Agent Baker thinks that Tom is just another crackpot giving a false confession, so he hands off the report to two subordinate FBI agents named Agent Pete Nivens (played by Jai Courtney) and Agent Mario Hall (played by Anthony Ramos). Nivens is single and very ambitious in his career. Hall is a happily married man with a young son.

The difference between these two men becomes obvious when Nivens complains to Hall about how parents unnecessarily gush about their children to make childless people feel like they’re missing out in life. Nivens basically tells Hall that he thinks being a parent is overrated. Later in the movie, Nivens (who thinks of himself as an “alpha male”) repeatedly manipulates Hall by using Hall’s love for his son as a way for Nivens to get Hall to do what Nivens wants.

Nivens and Hall go to the Charleston Hotel to visit Tom and investigate Tom’s claims. Tom tells these two FBI agents that he hid the robbery money in a storage unit and offers to show it to them as proof. However, Nivens orders Tom to stay at the hotel and says that he and Hall will go to the storage unit by themselves. Tom reluctantly gives them the key to the storage unit and tells them where the storage unit is.

Nivens and Hall go to Tom’s storage unit and find out that Tom was telling the truth, because they find millions of dollars in cash hidden in boxes. Nivens then convinces a reluctant Hall that they should steal all the money for themselves and pretend to everyone else that the money was never there. Nivens appeals to Hall’s desire to be able to pay for whatever his family wants, as a way to persuade Hall that he will never have any more money problems for the rest of his life.

Nivens and Hall are packing up the boxes of cash in their car trunk when Annie suddenly approaches them to ask what they’re doing with Tom’s stuff. Annie mentions that she saw them on the office’s surveillance cameras, and she came outside to investigate. Nivens and Hall lie and tell Annie that Tom asked them to help move some of his items from the storage unit.

Because Tom had told Annie that he was temporarily staying at a hotel due to plumbing repairs in his home, she believes want Nivens and Hall have to say. Even though Annie is suspicious, she asks a lot of leading questions that are easy for the crooked FBI agents to lie about, such as, “How do you know Tom? Did you serve in the Marines with him?” And, of course, they say yes.

Putting aside the fact that they know they’ve been caught on camera taking things out of the storage locker, the stupidity of Nivens and Hall’s decision to steal the money also comes from the fact that they wouldn’t be able to spend all that money without arousing suspicion. And who knows if that stolen bank money has bills that are marked? These are things that FBI agents and other law-enforcement officials are trained to know about, but the corrupt FBI dimwits in this sloppily written movie don’t consider these very realistic factors.

And not to mention that a snake like Nivens wouldn’t hesitate to double-cross his partner in crime, so Hall is incredibly naïve for putting his trust in Nivens. Hall finds out how much of a loose cannon Nivens can be when something happens after Hall and Nivens get back to the hotel and they lie to Tom by saying that they didn’t find any money in the storage unit. What happens next in the hotel sets off a chain of events that lead to Tom going on the run, Annie getting caught up in the danger, and certain FBI agents chasing in dogged pursuit.

When there’s a movie as poorly thought-out as “Honest Thief,” sometimes it can be entertaining because of the action sequences. But the action in “Honest Thief” is very unremarkable and has been seen in dozens of other movies just like it. People get beaten up, there are some explosions, some car chases, some shootouts, some chases on foot. And there are lots of scenes where Neeson just barrels along with injuries that, in real life, would put someone in an emergency room at a hospital.

“Honest Thief” is just another unimpressive action showcase for Neeson as yet another angry and misunderstood loner who’s out for self-righteous vengeance while he goes through the expected motions with gun violence and other predictable stunts. Neeson has been sticking to this formula for quite some time for his action films, so most of his fans should know what to expect. Anyone expecting high-quality entertainment from “Honest Thief” will definitely feel cheated.

Open Road Films released “Honest Thief” in U.S. cinemas on October 16, 2020.

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