Friday, 15 May 2015

Girlhood


It is almost 20 years since La Haine exploded onto cinema screens, summoning the rage that flowed, and flows still, through the urban arteries of les banlieues. Mathieu Kassovitz’s searing breakthrough stood as a visceral snapshot of life in the French outskirts, a stage where liberté, égalité and fraternité are as absent as the opportunities they espouse. 

A monochrome calling card for a generation, La Haine’s power, however stylised, lay in its uncomfortable treatment of a subject many in France would prefer to ignore: that the abandoned and impoverished ethnic peoples on the fringes of the nation’s singularly unbending identity could no longer be ignored. 

Two decades later, our post-Charlie Hebdo reality seems a savage reminder that those profound societal problems — alienation, displacement, exclusion from the state to which loyalty is expected — have metastasised into something much darker and infinitely more disturbing.

For Kassovitz and La Haine in 1995, read Céline Sciamma and Girlhood in 2015. A leading figure in France’s new wave of filmmakers, Sciamma has, in this instance, fashioned a poised and fascinating picture that moves more than it exhilarates, trading in sad acceptance rather than outright anger. It may be a coming-of-age event anchored, quite hopelessly, in the far reaches of modern Paris but Sciamma has designs beyond simply gawping at ghetto life. In those places labelled quartiers difficiles, to survive is to triumph; and it is the women, arguably, whose stories need to be heard. 


Bande de Filles (Gang of Girls), to give the film its original and more apposite title, completes a loose trilogy that Sciamma set up with Water Lilies and Tomboy. In this release, the wonderfully poised Karidja Touré plays Marieme, a diffident 16-year-old whose modest high-rise existence becomes more exciting when she befriends a trio of fellow teenage girls, as swaggering as she is restrained. 

Now a four-piece, Marieme, Adiatou, Fily and Lady, the leader, bunk off school, hustling and scowling their way through otherwise dull lives that are hemmed in by status, class and the inherent misogyny of their cultural structure. Indeed, in spite of the sullen preening seen by the outside world, their aspirations are heartbreakingly modest. 

That fact is best underlined early on. Having shaken down enough of their peers to afford a night out, they make for an anonymous hotel, rent a room, enjoy a few drinks and try on some (stolen) clothes. The sequence is capped off by a joyful, splendidly innocent karaoke rendition of Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ and Sciamma clearly wishes to poke holes in any notion that these youngsters are all that different from their white middle-class compatriots.

Where the director excels is in drawing towering performances from a troupe of raw, untrained and street-cast black actresses chosen for the relative novelty of their presence in French cinema, as much as for their obvious gifts. Chattering in an argot set to machine-gun speed, each displays a distinct trait that reinforces the whole. Lady (a bewitching Assa Sylla) is the finger-clicking queen bee; Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) personifies the spirit of the group; Fily (Mariétou Touré) serves as its steady backbone. They inhabit a milieu that demands respect, and violence — a theme that Sciamma chooses not to fixate upon — represents the best protection for fragile reputations. 

That being said, Girlhood is Marieme’s story. She travels a road which yields more questions than answers. Allowed to slip out of the system by a faceless, apathetic teacher, ungoverned by an aloof mother whose own features are never fully visible, she must navigate her awakening without the support many of us take for granted. Her journey is not uneventful; in the hands of a lesser talent it might even appear trite. Touré, however, turns in a multi-faceted portrayal ripe with emotion and held fast by an inspiring sense of resolve. There is even an androgynous quality to her acting that conjures an air of mystery to sit alongside an impassive, unknowable expression.



Stripped of Marieme’s three companions, the final leg sags somewhat thanks to an ancillary drug-dealing arc that registers as less than organic. Yet, it rallies before the credits, choosing ambiguity over the easy fix of a neat conclusion.

Sciamma’s past is marked by the plaudits heaped on her minimalist leanings and while they surface here, this is a film sporting a charge of rare style, from the neon hue creeping in on occasion to the urgent, synth-heavy score that feels less incongruous than it should. 

Above it all is a message that bears emphasising: looking out at the only continent they’ve ever known, their faces pressed against the glass of countless tower blocks and speeding express trains, the granddaughters of the colonies have myriad tales to tell. They want to join in. Open the door.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Rosewater


In making Rosewater, American comedy titan Jon Stewart sought to accomplish two things. On the one hand, his debut as a writer-director is a mature, brilliantly acted account of journalistic integrity and human fortitude. 

It represents a compelling break from Stewart’s usual shtick on his nightly Comedy Central blitzkrieg, The Daily Show, a conscience-of-the-nation routine that largely involves withering, often exasperated critiques, of the idiocy that now passes for (mostly) conservative political discourse across the Atlantic. 

Equally, this is drama as the gentlest of apologies, with the message chiefly directed at its real-life central figure. Stewart's reasoning is born not of responsibility but of an indirect personal connection to the fate of one man thousands of miles away. 

Of the many facets that collude to create The Daily Show, the correspondent interviews are perhaps the most subversive. Unleashing any one of Stewart’s pompous and straight-faced sidekicks into staged exchanges with politicians, leaders and makers of the news, these are invariably absurd, slyly amusing instead of obviously hysterical. That the likes of Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver should have once made their comedy bones in this corps of intrepid funnymen speaks to the relentless quality of Stewart’s supporting acts. 

Unfortunately, however, not everyone is in on the joke. 

When London-based Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari spoke with Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones in June 2009, their meeting was clearly preposterous. Both men were in Tehran to cover Iran’s presidential election and Jones, dressed like an American special forces operator, grilled a game Bahari on, amongst other things, the best method for conducting espionage inside the country. Playing along, Bahari calmly answered Jones’s ridiculous questions with only the smallest twinkle in his eye.  

Later, in the wake of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s specious victory at the polls, as riots and disorder erupted across Persia, Bahari recorded the explosion of what its proponents would quickly label the ‘Green Revolution’, broadcasting important footage to the world. His work captured the regime’s murderous response to this wave of disenchantment and thus he came to the attention of the hysterically paranoid internal security services.

Already piqued at those inconvenient and unambiguous images, the authorities claimed that Bahari was a spy and worse: a Zionist puppet. They based their assertion, incredibly, on his Daily Show appearance. He was promptly arrested, then subjected to 118 days of solitary confinement and sustained, nonsensical interrogation. Assuming that they were genuine in their belief, it only goes to show that tyranny has little time for satire.

Drawn to his own inadvertent involvement in the matter, Stewart resolved to dramatise Bahari’s ordeal. The result is intriguing because it winds an unpredictable path; it switches moods at unexpected moments, undermining notions of Stewart’s directorial ambitions. 


In the lead role, the famously Mexican Gael García Bernal — an excellent actor, whatever the part — throws off his matinee idol charisma to portray Bahari as a bookish, serious reporter who is faintly arrogant, yet pragmatic enough to adjust to new penal surroundings rather than buck against the system for the sake of a principle. It is a nuanced performance, a testament to the trust Bernal has in a director who eschews violence and torture for something more low-key, more subtle. Where there might be misery there is a sliver of hope; when cruelty might overwhelm the story, humanity prevails. Stewart wishes to convey the truth, not sensationalism. Even Bahari’s arrest is relatively polite.

In delivering such a tone, Stewart places much of his faith in the strange dynamic that develops between Bahari and his interrogator, Javadi (The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia), an unworldly middle-ranking official — dressed, badly, in the sober Ahmadinejad uniform of open-necked shirt and sport coat — whose only remarkable trait is the fragrant rosewater that he sprays on his person. 

The older man burbles wild accusations and misshapen notions of the West, a place he does not comprehend. Soon enough, it is he, not his prisoner, who appears desperate and lost.

Bodnia carries an almost tangible whiff of insecurity — professional, intellectual, sexual — beneath his musk. With international media pressure mounting, he is under orders to produce results; he seems eager for information, any information, to pass upstairs. That fact is soon discerned by Bahari and, at this juncture, Stewart’s recognisable leanings come to the fore, imbuing an otherwise serious picture with a dash of charming irreverence that cannot fail to delight. As Javadi listens in awed silence, eyes popping, to his prisoner’s spurious accounts of carnal escapades, the comedian’s cheeky sense of farce peeks out from beneath the blindfold. 

Indeed, he even has room to invoke the odd fantastical wrinkle. Bahari enjoys meaningful conversations with the ghosts of his communist father and sister, a touching distraction from his isolation. Late on, he prances around his cell in time with an arrangement heard only by him. These unexpected flourishes define Rosewater as a film possessing higher aspirations beyond its worthy visage. 

An edited version of this article was first published here. 

Friday, 1 May 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd


In 2012, Thomas Vinterberg explored the vile spectre of paedophilia with The Hunt, an elegantly cruel movie forming around the swift destruction of a good man’s reputation at the hands of his close-knit community's baseless assumptions. Featuring the ever brilliant Mads Mikkelsen as the blameless victim of wicked rumours, the Dane’s film was as courageous as it was handsome, a bleak portrait on the smoothest canvas. 

Given the mood there, and the close working relationship with his provocative compatriot Lars Von Trier, Vinterberg seemed something of a left-field choice when it was announced that he would direct Far From the Madding Crowd, the latest take on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 classic and a pillar of the pastoral idyll. 

Remarkably, then, considering the auteur’s penchant for challenging material, his sumptuous, pleasingly traditional spin on a beloved novel features only the merest hint of a dark swirl beneath the surface. Truthfully, such is the reined-in nature of Vinterberg’s beautifully realised drama, that much of the strife invented by Hardy to plague his characters falls by the wayside, abandoned in the hope of keeping this madding crowd firmly on the straight and narrow.

Visually dazzling, featuring a host of natural performances and appropriately deferential to its wondrous source material, Far From the Madding Crowd is every inch the high-end update of a story brought to the screen more than once. Measured against John Schlesinger’s seminal interpretation from 1967 — famously starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates — Vinterberg’s iteration is, at 118 minutes, a much leaner effort. Indeed, it is in this respect that the picture disappoints, the sense that there exists much more to explore never quite dissipating as it winds its way, with undeniable grace, along a path that is familiar but significantly less involving. There is simply not enough to grab hold of. 

That said, the 2015 edition is a worthy addition to Hardy’s weighty canon, blessed with a talented cast and displaying a depth of soul to rival anything that has gone before. 

The tale is, of course, a familiar one. The educated, refined Bathsheba Everdene (Carrie Mulligan) lives with her aunt in Victorian rural Dorset, farming their modest holding and settled on finding a position as a governess. On the neighbouring farm, Matthias Schoenaerts’s Gabriel Oak is a strapping bachelor with respectable prospects, the very essence of the loyal and honest Englishman. Upon first meeting Bathsheba, Gabriel is smitten and soon asks proposes. Gently rejecting his advances, she suggests that a man as gentle and unassuming as he could never tame her wilful spirit.


When she inherits a fortune from her uncle and he sees his investment fail — a horrifying incident, conveyed in starkly finite terms — their fortunes are reversed. Eventually, Gabriel comes once more in Bathsheba’s orbit, now a mere shepherd on her burgeoning estate, all golden hay fields, burbling brooks and bucolic innocence. 

Likely still in love with his mistress, considered while she is headstrong, he remains steadfast in her employ, committed to the job he desperately requires. When both characters share the screen, the film soars. David Nicholls’s delicate script infuses their exchanges with a crackling tension, romantic rather than overtly sexual. Vinterberg discerns tangible heat beneath Mulligan’s prim and strong-willed exterior — a capable avatar for contemporary female empowerment — while Schoenaerts displays a soulful elegance that contrasts with Bates’s earthier, moulded-from-the-Wessex-soil depiction. The Belgian hides his Flemish tones beneath a neutral English inflection and excels to such an extent that his absence is keenly felt when the two other main strands of the plot come to the fore.


Neither of the competing narratives is especially uninteresting. Such is the emotional investment in the primary dynamic, however, that these equally vital elements suffer by comparison. In and of themselves, both Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge succeed in portraying wealthy farmer William Boldwood and raffish soldier Francis Troy, respectively. Boldwood’s stunted awkwardness quickly gives way to a destructive obsession with Bathsheba that owes much to her own casual disregard for his mental wellbeing; Troy exploits her unworldly naivety to amuse himself, yet is plagued by an emotional complexity that is never less than intriguing. 

No, the problems relate to pacing. Too little of the running time is dedicated to these characters, an oversight that serves to render Troy’s sensual romance with Bathsheba a fleeting and unconvincing encounter which rarely feels sincere. The finale, too, sags, a missed opportunity sadly less dramatic than it should have been. 

Those weaknesses aside, the anchoring relationship saves Vinterberg’s period piece from outright disappointment. Alongside the encroaching deterioration of the rural milieu — touched on here, though too briefly — it is Bathsheba and Gabriel who populate the main event, a pairing that tugs at the heartstrings, that courses with quiet power. If only the undercard felt as weighty. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Survivalist


There is a moment not far from the conclusion of The Survivalist that perfectly captures the essence of Stephen Fingleton’s raw, hypnotic and masterful debut feature. Mia Goth’s Milja — an impassive and steel-cored young woman, as hardy as she is damaged — gathers herself, naked, before the flames of a stove, opens her legs and attempts a form of medieval self-surgery so horrifying that it sends silent tears rolling down her otherwise calm features. 

To provide details is to ruin the film’s delicately constructed conclusion, though, in truth, this particular experience merely keeps track with the overall tone. Unflinchingly honest, stylish in its delivery, Fingleton’s muscular arrival as an auteur of singular poise is both a dystopian fable and a chilling examination of the brutalities lying dormant within humanity’s animal self. In its own quiet way, this is a test of endurance; like it or loathe it, embrace the grim premise or be repulsed, there is no escaping its power. 

The director has labelled his piece an ‘anti-science fiction film’; the description is apt. His is a picture of glowering immediacy, based not on an Earth that is dying but one that feels and sounds alive, shorn of the humans who once decimated it. Set in the wake of an unspecified, slow-burning, never-discussed global catastrophe — one which may yet be ongoing — Martin McCann’s eponymous loner (nameless throughout) lives a dismal existence in a remote forest, barely drawing sustenance from the land surrounding his small cabin. 

McCann’s life is an ugly hand-to-mouth scramble, beset by meagre resources and an ever-present threat of outsiders seeking to steal his supplies. Indeed, the initial third is a spartan affair, light on dialogue and exposition, carrying Fingleton’s vision ever forward, pausing only to take in the distance between this life and our own contemporary understanding of civilisation. For all the bucolic, sun-dappled elegance of the setting (Ballymoney in July, to be exact), that milieu replete with a lush verdancy captured lovingly by cinematographer Damien Elliot, a darkness of place and mood festers in the near background. 

The first words of a spare script are uttered when Milja and her mother, Kathryn (Irish thesp Olwen Fouéré), stumble upon the woodland homestead seeking food and refuge. Of course, in this post-collapse landscape, everything has a price, thus Kathryn pimps her daughter in exchange for the Survivalist’s hospitality and Milja, clearly familiar with the drill, happily obliges so as to enjoy his protection. 

Interestingly, from this point, some measure of domestic tranquillity descends on proceedings, Kathryn and Milja settling in to aid their host in the upkeep of his humble holding as the latter woman exploits his basic need for human contact. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and never to be forgotten, survival is at the core of every character’s motivation. Fingleton’s world is ruthless, its people press on for one simple reason: because they must. 

In technical terms, much of The Survivalist is mesmerising, laced with an air of swaggering confidence that belies its creator’s relative inexperience. One bravura scene, wordless and bristling with tension, plays out in an eerie grassland that ripples with violence and the hum of nature. The beautiful floating crane shot at the centre of the sequence belongs in a project afforded more than the relatively modest £1 million budget entrusted to Fingleton, who squeezes every penny from the coffers. Impressively, nothing in this lean beast of a film is rushed. Only short, sharp bouts of peril puncture the sombre ambience as days and, apparently, even months pass without comment. Furthermore, his frank tale often veers away from cheap thrills, with gratuitous savagery or sex being ignored, hinted at instead of pored over. 

Forming a formidable trio, then, the main players convince as denizens of tomorrow’s planet. In the lead role, McCann is excellent, carrying the movie for much of its 104 minutes. The Belfast actor — twitchy, gimlet-eyed, entirely capable — displays an unsettling intensity, a signature edge that is utterly believable in the context of his character, and accomplishes the substantial task of making a man unburdened by softness, plagued by encroaching delusions, seem almost sympathetic. 

Beside him, Fouéré is every inch his equal, her long snowy hair and watchful gaze casting her as some kind of woodland sorceress come to claim this patch. Goth, meanwhile, is fascinating in her inscrutability. Best known from Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, she turns in a performance as brave as McCann’s: steady and resourceful. A true child of the post-apocalypse, Milja possesses a keen instinct that even her mother fails to comprehend and her struggle ultimately comes to the fore. 

In spite of the film's startling accomplishments, this is not without flaws. As bracing as it is, trading in potential realities rather than fantasies, that which serves as an underlying ecological message is quickly abandoned. A clever opening graphic depicts the relationship between population growth and international oil production, yet it is the only context in a film otherwise lacking broader themes. This sits awkwardly in hindsight, an element that is left unexplored save for McCann’s parsimonious attitude to his own fuel stocks. The finale, too, features a band of marauders who may well be more significant than their screen time suggests.


The good far outweighs the weaker ingredients, however. A former fixture on Hollywood’s Black List of challenging unmade screenplays, The Survivalist would appear to be worth the wait, undoubtedly the film that Derry native Fingleton wished to conjure.

In the past month, he has taken his work to both the Tribeca and Belfast film festivals, important showcases for a film that has no cuddly edges to attract the masses. Let us hope that such progress earns it wider exposure. This needs to be seen.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

John Wick


The name John Wick is hardly one to invoke images of terror and twitchy paranoia. It's a bland moniker, one that might attach to your bank manager, the owner of a friendly family bakery or the retired neighbour who mows his lawn twice a day. John Wick just doesn't seem very frightening. 

Think again. As the eponymous avenging angel of Chad Stehelski and David Leitch's debut directing gig, Wick's name alone strikes cold fear into the souls of his enemies; it appears, in this sumptuous, neon-drenched context at least, to represent true darkness. 

In the lead role, Keanu Reeves, remarkably, casts aside the dross that has littered his career since the spectacular highs of The Matrix and its potty sequels. As taciturn as usual, his brand of impassive anger fills the void into which a lean narrative might otherwise descend. To see the erstwhile Neo scything through the hordes he once called his peers is to be deeply impressed and reminded of the actor's magnetic appeal in the right setting. 


And what a setting it is. Uncompromising, unspeakably ruthless, Wick explodes from the frame, the roiling mass at the centre of a rippling actioner that occasionally reaches visceral high watermarks once thought lost to mainstream American cinema. 

The story, a simple one, is not wholly unfamiliar, though previous iterations are unlikely to have featured this amount of sophisticated mayhem. When the widowed Wick's tragically quiet life is upended by an act of gratuitous violence, courtesy of identikit noveau riche mobster brat Iosef (Alfie Allen), the demon slips its shackles. Iosef's petulance unleashes upon himself, and his Russian crime lord father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), a spirit of coldly determined rage intent on claiming their blood. The mark is both a retired mafia assassin and a whisper-inducing gangland boogeyman that would have even Hades locking his doors at night. 

Interestingly, however, Wick seeks his several pounds of flesh not for the loss of a beloved wife, but for the brutal slaying of the adorable beagle puppy she bequeathed him and the theft of the '69 Mustang in which he drives out his deep-seated torment. 

Like the Reeves-starring Speed before it, John Wick lives and dies by the strength of its own searing kineticism. With its near balletic gunplay and sense of grimy savagery lingering beneath the shiny surface  a metaphor best exemplified by the Continental hotel, a luscious underworld Shangri-La catering exclusively to the film's stylish circus of professional killers  this is a forceful first offering from a duo who made their bones as stunt coordinators. Their set pieces are precise and brutal, fun-filled guilty pleasures captured with gliding, unblinking detail and laced with a refreshing dose of cheeky irreverence. 

With a second instalment already confirmed, this is now a name for which we need to stay alert. 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Cinderella


For all his austere leanings and weighty Shakespearean back catalogue, Sir Kenneth Branagh has never been afraid to dabble in the blockbuster mainstream. From the comic book bombast of Thor to his muscular Jack Ryan chronicle, Shadow Recruit, the Belfast-born performer seems strongly determined to balance out a directing career otherwise defined by the musings of the Bard.

In many ways, Cinderella represents an apogee of this approach. Dazzling, elegant, grand; Branagh’s Disney adventure is not a retuned, rebooted version of a classic but a straight adaptation of something as familiar to us all as cinema itself. Nothing here will change the world or mould a genre. That matters not. Just go with its cheeky flow, the kaleidoscope of colour and spirited performances, and there are myriad delights to be had. 

If the story itself lacks originality — and this is Cinderella in its purest form — its execution cannot fail to impress. Branagh, that most august of thesps, has crafted a visually stunning feature, overlaying each deliciously rendered frame with gorgeous imagery and sleek aesthetics, his bustling palette wearing the look of some lovingly retouched HD edition of a golden age stalwart. The ultimate effect, at once breathtaking and mildly comforting, should serve to undermine even the most cynical of observers. 

Arguably the film’s least frivolous element, Lily James steps out of the shadow of her simpering Downton Abbey alter ego to fill out the honest and uncomplicated title character, imbuing her with a low-key humanity that never tips into the gormless goody-two-shoes characterisation of the average fairytale heroine. Instead, James brings a realness to her role that reflects the sad strain of an otherwise idyllic childhood, her gentle mother (Hayley Atwell) dying suddenly and leaving Ella in the care of a doting but lonely father (Ben Chaplin).

What happens next is well known. Cate Blanchett arrives as Lady Tremaine, a poised, couture-wielding stepmother so devilish that she keeps a cat, called Lucifer, on a leash. The Australian star, a chameleonic and peerless actress, has great fun playing up to the antagonist stereotype, yet there are layers beneath the surface that might appear mawkish in a weaker grip. She and her gruesome daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) relegate Ella to servitude among the cinders soon after the death of her father, later forbidding her from going to the ball hosted at the royal palace by Kit, the dashing ‘apprentice monarch’ portrayed with jolly earnestness by Richard Madden (fully recovered from his savage demise in Game of Thrones). 


Naturally, Ella does indeed go to the big event thanks to the intervention of Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother, a bundle of cut-glass energy given only the briefest cameo, though it is decisive enough to transform pumpkins into gilded carriages (“I don’t usually work with squashes: too mushy”), mice into stallions and lizards into footmen. While Branagh is clearly treating his adaptation as a serious enterprise, he never scrimps on the fun, steering an endlessly endearing romp through unplaceable, outrageously bucolic European backdrops and a love story most of us know inside out. 

In our hardbitten age, a movie as eternally optimistic as this could feel out of place. Disney, of course, knows exactly what it is doing, sticking close to a formula in which it is steeped. The director simply adds class to an obvious studio attempt to retain the interest of the Frozen crowd and if the wonderfully choreographed dance sequence — a blur of soft swishing skirts and swooping camera work — towards the end does not capture the imagination of the masses, nothing will. 

That Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have injected a charge of genuine human discourse into their fantasy speaks to a level of thoughtful engagement not necessarily required by the target audience. The wicked stepmother has her demons, the handsome prince his own crushing heartbreak to overcome. These ancillary strands underpin the spectacle and ensure, with a surprising degree of subtlety, that Cinderella’s charm lasts beyond the stroke of midnight. 

A version of this article was first published here.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Run All Night


So, here we are again. As his delicate turn in Schindler’s List fades from the memory, Liam Neeson’s crusade to dominate the cinema listings continues unabated, his reforged action-star career logging another gritty chapter. From the tired Taken franchise to the likes of The Grey, the Ballymena native is currently the go-to guy for middling thrillers in need of a charge of star dust. 

Fortunately, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Run All Night hits much more than it misses. Relying on his lead actor's hulking physicality and ability to play weathered, brow-beaten Celts like few others, this is a stylish, creatively crafted gangster flick, more than worthy of the public’s attention. In fact it is, arguably, the best output from Neeson for some time. 

He and Collet-Serra have formed a strange double act in recent years, collaborating, with unremarkable results, on 2011’s Unknown, an inoffensive paranoid mystery, and last year’s fun, if silly, Non-Stop. Neeson represents an unorthodox muse, yet the Spaniard has found much to work with in his scowling bullshit-free persona. 


Here he plays ageing mob button man Jimmy ‘the Gravedigger’ Conlon, a listless, drunken reprobate who only remains on the payroll due to a deep-rooted friendship with crime boss Sean Maguire (the excellent Ed Harris). Indeed, within five minutes, every Irish mafia cliché has been handily checked: bars, booze, hangovers and bent cops. Four of the principal players are called Jimmy, Sean, Michael and Danny; there’s a Pat, too, for good measure. Even a framed picture of the old sod sits, comfortingly, on a wall nearby.

Sure, Run All Night lacks the meanness of The Departed, or the breathtaking elegance of Road to Perdition — a film it largely apes, save for the modern setting and a slight deviation in the story — but this soon registers as something nicely off-piste from the creaking template that Neeson has followed in recent years. 

Unlike the dull and basically invincible Bryan Mills of the Taken series, Conlon is a horribly flawed human being, predictably so, maybe, yet real enough to appear interesting. Soaked in his own vices, haunted by the cast of stooges and snitches, enemies and friends that he has done away with for Sean, the Gravedigger shambles between his early scenes like the great husk of a figure once called man. He begs for cash and is forced to don a Santa suit in order to fix his heater. As one might expect, Jimmy’s son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), is less than enamoured of his dad. 

Their simmering antipathy seems insignificant, however, when Michael, a straight-laced limo driver and dedicated family man, witnesses Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), Sean’s low-life progeny, executing an Albanian gangster. On the cusp of his own murder, he is saved, decisively, by Conlon the elder, an act laced with shattering consequences. 

From this point on, Collet-Serra does a sturdy job of conjuring a tidy chase movie that feels darker than its glitzy sheen and hyperactive tone might otherwise suggest. There is genuine friction between father and son, their race to stay ahead of Maguire — now wracked with the spirit of vengeance — failing to quell the fury felt by Michael about the nature of his scrappy upbringing. Kinnaman, underwhelming in RoboCop, draws on the edgy undertones and magnetic sense of focus that made him so watchable in the American remake of The Killing. Meatier tension also presents itself in exchanges between Neeson and Harrison, where the sight of two grizzled veterans butting heads serves as a sedate antidote to the hectic pace that Collet-Serra employs from time to time.

Perhaps in an attempt to raise his game, he leans on visual kineticism more than is required. A series of tricky techniques are utilised, adding little substance, but they at least signal his intention to produce a somewhat more memorable film than the well-worn narrative should reasonably allow. Early on, he swoops between geographical locations from on high, soaring above the endless outer margins of New York City. Later, for no apparent reason, the camera veers in close to a chainlink fence, and then through it, a Fincheresque move that grabs the attention if nothing else. 

Neeson presses on manfully through all of it, like this generation's Charles Bronson, minus the kitsch. His decidedly old-school air of grimy survivalism propels him towards a measure of redemption. Latterly, Common makes an appearance, crowbarred into the proceedings as an ice-veined killer savant. The move jars but, like its brawny protagonist, Run All Night just about endures.