Mark Williams’s action flick disappoints.
Despite hitting the 70-year mark in a few months, actor Liam Neeson repeatedly continues to out-work, out-hustle, and even out-act performers half his age. Since the Luc Besson-produced Taken shocked then current box-office prognosticators in the spring of 2008, becoming a major commercial hit in the process, Neeson has starred, co-starred, or appeared in close to 50 films, including more than a dozen mid-budget action-thrillers. For the studios eagerly financing Neeson’s profitable post-2008-career, modest financial risks have equated to modest or better box-office returns. Often the most talented performer in the formulaic films he leads, Neeson seems more than willing to sign onto one generic action thriller after another as long as the check clears. Unfortunately, Blacklight, the latest addition to his CV, does little to curb this increasingly downward, increasingly disappointing trend.
Before introducing Travis Block (Neeson), an FBI operative who works, we’re repeatedly told, on “off-the-books” assignments for the FBI Director, Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn), Blacklight opens with a political rally in Washington, D.C. (Canberra, Australia, an unconvincing stand-in) and an AOC-inspired activist-turned-political-candidate, Sofia Flores (Mel Jarnson). In a sign of head-scratching, confusing things to come, Flores gives a speech that mixes left-wing politics with right-wing rhetoric at a small-scale, lightly attended rally. She’s young, attractive, and charismatic, apparently making her a danger to national security (or something). Before the audience gets too attached to Flores, she’s struck down in a hit-and-run, sending an undercover FBI agent, Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith), into panicked flight, and Block, newly activated by his boss/handler, in non-urgent pursuit.
Like so many forgettable characters played by Neeson over the last decade and a half, Block has family issues, serious family issues. This time out, Block’s in dire need of repairing his fractured relationship with his thirty-something daughter, Amanda (Claire van der Boom), and Amanda’s preschool-aged daughter, Natalie (Gabriella Sengos). Block just wants to be a good dad and an even better granddad, but decades of working for Robinson have left him a perpetually paranoid, twitchy mess. Suffering from OCD doesn’t help either, though it’s meant to make his aging semi-hero slightly more sympathetic, especially since Block, whose developed a specialty in rescuing and recovering deep-cover FBI agents before they go rogue or go to the press, repeatedly justifies his actions as “just following orders.”
That alone places Block as a questionably motivated character on the wrong side of authoritarianism, but co-writer director Mark Williams (Honest Thief, A Definitely Maybe), prefers an audience that sits back, enjoys the sporadic, underlit action scenes, and above all, asks no questions of Block’s character, his motivation, or his place in an ever-growing conspiracy theory that ultimately encompasses Block, Amanda, Natalie, and Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman, The Umbrella Academy), a government conspiracy-hunting reporter who crosses paths with Crane and thus, Block. Block, in turn, inexplicably tries to talk Jones into dropping her investigation (she understandably does the exact opposite) before she becomes a target of the shadowy government operatives who eliminated Flores and want to do the same before Crane says too much to all the wrong people (i.e., Jones, other reporters).
From Blacklight’s convoluted story beats, it’s obvious Williams wants to meld old-school, ‘70s-style paranoid conspiracy thrillers (e.g., Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men) with 21st-century action-hero tropes (Liam Neeson Edition). Unfortunately, Williams and his co-writer, Nick May, failed to understand what made those conspiracy thrillers work five decades ago, what needed to remain the same for contemporary audiences and what needed be updated, and how to create meaningful, suspenseful scenarios out of characters behaving in a believable, credible manner. Instead, the one-dimensional characters in Blacklight often make nonsensical, head-scratching decisions, shedding IQ points as dictated by plot demands rather than anything approaching the real world.
With sparsely sporadic action scenes that, at best, can be described either as incoherent, ill-conceived, or poorly executed, Blacklight doesn’t even qualify as an adequate time-waster or passable, disposable entertainment. Minus Neeson’s usually committed, gruff turn and gravitas-filled line readings, there’s nothing else worthy of the effort necessary to sit through Blacklight except as background fodder or Neeson completists with masochistic streaks.
Blacklight opens theatrically Friday, February 11th.