Blacklight Review: An Action Star Shows His Age In This Plodding Thriller

Danny Glover was 41 years old when, as Roger Murtaugh in the first "Lethal Weapon," he said that he was "too old for this sh*t." At the ripe old age of 41, Liam Neeson was starring in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," still more than a decade away from portraying men with particular sets of skills that enabled him to become a late-stage action hero. But the era of Neeson headlining movies like "Taken" to the score of hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office has faded away. Neeson is still out here, gamely appearing in B-level action-thrillers but increasingly — and especially as he's months away from turning 70 — age is taking its toll. Among its takeaways, his latest picture, the flat and dull "Blacklight" implies that here, finally, is a man too old for this s**t.

"Blacklight" begins before we meet Neeson's off-the-books FBI operative Travis Block, though. Instead, we start with a young Latina politician (pretty clearly a stand-in for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, especially based on the politician's quick stump speech) getting killed in an intentional hit-and-run. Though this gruesome pre-title death seems unconnected, it soon becomes clear that there's a greater conspiracy at play. The man she thought was her boyfriend, Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith), is actually an FBI operative under deep cover who was supposed to kill her himself before he fell for her. Now he wants to reveal the secrets of a hush-hush operation to the press (represented by a Buzzfeed-style journalist played by Emmy Raver-Lampman), and Block is tasked by his old friend Gabe (Aidan Quinn), who happens to be the director of the FBI, to bring Dusty in and convince him to stay the course instead of blow the whistle.

Though "Blacklight" comes from Mark Williams, the same director and co-writer of another recent Neeson picture, "Honest Thief," this film showcases the limitations of making the central figure of an action movie such an elder statesman of cinema. There are a number of action setpieces in "Blacklight," such as a daytime car chase through a metropolitan thoroughfare (that is, Australian locations where this was shot attempting to masquerade as American cities) or a foot chase between Dusty and a pair of agents who are ruthless killers. But that, perhaps, gives away the game: whatever action occurs in the first half of "Blacklight" especially requires Smith to run and fight and shoot. Neeson's level of action here is, to put it lightly, more laid-back — his running scenes are few and far between, and half of them involve Travis playfully chasing after his granddaughter. 

A Thriller With Few Thrills

Instead, Neeson is left to puzzle out a conspiracy whose participants are exceedingly clear early on. It's baffling enough that "Blacklight," a film being sold with a poster featuring Neeson brandishing a gun and the tagline "They're gonna need more men," never makes good on that "Jaws"-style hook. (Neeson does fire a gun plenty of times in the film, but the low-budget affair doesn't seem to have afforded more than, like, five random agents chasing after his lead character.) What we're left with is an attempt at a paranoid conspiracy thriller with very few thrills indeed. Williams and co-writer Nick May try to make something out of the generic "Lifer agent looking to retire" cliche, by giving Travis a slight case of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a daughter (Claire van der Boom) who says her dad is too paranoid about people out to get him to be a consistent masculine presence in his granddaughter's life. 

The word "generic" is the one that crops up most frequently in the experience of watching "Blacklight." By now, nearly 15 years after the first "Taken," we have all seemingly seen Liam Neeson play countless tough guys adept at using all kinds of weaponry. But "Blacklight" feels like the laziest collection of action-movie tropes, a mixed bag whose creators hope that it won't feel too old hat by now. "Blacklight" isn't aggressively terrible — though it does end up on a truly baffling punchline, a confusing choice because the movie otherwise understandably eschews humor — but it's the kind of genre fare that is awfully hard to justify spending any money on, either in theaters or on VOD.

If the presumed appeal of "Blacklight" is that you get to watch Liam Neeson beat up some nasty dudes who have it coming to them, well ... this movie doesn't really offer a whole lot of that. (The closest is the all-too-brief action-heavy climax, which basically takes the masterful third act of "Skyfall" and switches it from "the hero's childhood home" to "some random person's house.") It's hard to know whether the challenges of making a rough-and-tumble action movie with Liam Neeson at the helm now stem from age or from making a movie like this during the pandemic. Whatever the explanation is, the result is that "Blacklight" is a bland way to pass 100 minutes. When there are already so many other Neeson actioners you could watch, there isn't much reason to check this one out unless you, like Travis Block, have a touch of OCD and need to watch this as a Neeson completist. 

/Film Rating: 3.5 out of 10