There's a reason Liam Neeson doesn't have an Academy Award, and that's because as a dramatic actor, he is just shy of awful. Yeah, he did receive an Oscar nod for 1993's "Schindler's List," but let's admit that any one of us could get nominated in the lead role of a Steven Spielberg Holocaust movie. When called upon to emote, Neeson is as wooden as a wagon wheel, and he's not improving with age. Now, perhaps he realized that as well, which might explain his famously successful late-career transition to glowering action star. At this, Neeson excels. His laconic charisma, towering physicality, and wily sense of humor have elevated flicks like "The A-Team" reboot, the "Taken" trilogy, and now "Run All Night," more clichéd genre escapism about a desperate father, made surprisingly fun by deftly crafted mayhem and a stacked supporting cast.
Oddly, the very first image removes nearly all suspense about where we're headed, but the second scene flashes back 16 hours to introduce us to Neeson's character, Jimmy Conlon, a deadly mob enforcer back in the day but currently a weary drunkard keeping company with guilt and ghosts. The only person who still cares about Jimmy is his former boss, Shawn Maguire (the reliably flinty Ed Harris), now a legit businessman with a coked-out wild card of a son whose murderous ways set the plot of "Run All Night" into motion. In one of those only-in-the-movies coincidences, Jimmy's estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman, "Robocop") just happens to witness the younger Maguire's misdeeds, but the latter's efforts to permanently silence the former leave him with a fatal bullet through the carotid courtesy of Jimmy.
So "Run All Night" is exactly what the Conlon men do (which still doesn't excuse the lame title), as the grieving Shawn and his square-headed henchmen pursue Jimmy and Mike through the streets of Queens. During the occasional breaks in the chaos the resentful Mike, now a family man himself, airs his long list of grievances with the remorseful Jimmy, whose demanding career as an ice-veined killer didn't leave much opportunity for father-son bonding. The downtime also helps to color in the shaded relationship between Shawn and Jimmy, old friends now at cross purposes, with the vengeance-minded Shawn determined to watch Jimmy experience the loss of a son.
But grownups hashing out their feelings isn't what the audience paid to see, so director Jaume Collet-Serra (he also directed the Neeson joints "Unknown" and "Nonstop") stages some pretty bitchin' action sequences. The best of these include a cat-and-mouse hunt through a darkened residential high-rise, with newly minted Oscar winner Common as a tricked-out hitman harboring mystery beef against Jimmy ("I'll kill that motherf***er for free"), as well as a breakneck car chase that weaves through traffic on Jamaica Avenue and drove little fingernail parentheses into my palms. "Run All Night" is nicely shot, oodles of seedy neon contrasting with more blues and grays than the Civil War, plus Collet-Serra classes things up with swooping CGI that soars through the boroughs as an elegant way to transition from scene to scene.
I will say this for Neeson: He's usually able to raise his game when teamed with a stronger actor. Harris and Neeson enjoy one tense, meaty showdown in "the old neighborhood" (right outside Madison Square Garden), scarily calm at first but quickly tacking on layers of depth and menace. A similar uptick in talent occurs between Neeson and character actor extraordinaire Vincent D'Onofrio as a detective hell-bent on nailing Jimmy the Gravedigger, but Neeson is less fortunate opposite the frustratingly stiff Kinnaman, an oftentimes magnetic presence (AMC's "The Killing" is worth it for his performance alone) who is having a tough time carving out his niche in Hollywood. And watch for a puzzling cameo that I'm sorry I even mentioned.
Most refreshingly, the film is teeming with strong female characters ... Oh, of course I'm kidding! There are only two women on hand, and they exist solely to nag and blubber, often simultaneously. This is absolutely a boys' "Night" out, as Collet-Serra puts Neeson & Co. through all the expected but entertaining paces, meaning close calls, impossible escapes, bone-crunching brawls, and a necessary reminder that if you don't actually see a bad guy die, go ahead and set a place for him in the final act. He will be there with bells on.