A film review by Craig J. Koban March 20, 2022


2022, PG-13, 108 mins.

Liam Neeson as Travis Block  /  Emmy Raver-Lampman as Mira Jones  /  Taylor John Smith as Dusty Crane  /  Aidan Quinn as Gabriel Robinson  /  Tim Draxl as Drew Hawthorne  /  Claire van der Boom as Amanda Block

Directed by Mark Williams  /  Written by Nick May


Here we go again. 

Yet another entry in an alarmingly overstuffed genre that I like to call Aging Liam Neeson Takes Names and Kicks Ass, and one that seems to be laughably free-falling with increasingly diminishing returns.   

I've said this many times in my reviews for these films and it bares repeating again: I have nothing wrong with the pushing 70 Irish actor (or any twilight aged actor, for that matter) trying to re-invent and jump start his career by becoming a one-man army action star.  And for awhile post-TAKEN, Neeson seemed comfortably nested into such a position within the larger industry; many of his efforts became guilty pleasures for me.  Having said all of that, it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to recommend his latest action oriented endeavors, like last year's abysmal THE MARKSMEN (playing a rancher/guardian to a Mexican child) or THE ICE ROAD (playing the least convincing Manitoban semi-truck driver in movie history).   Now comes BLACKLIGHT, a would-be enthralling political thriller that's so woefully paint-by-numbers and tediously executed that I came out of it wanting the film and everyone involved in it to be blacklisted from making anything like it ever again.   I also wonder if anyone ran an actual UV light over the pages of its screenplay to see if a far better written film was secretly hidden that didn’t fall victim to the final product’s aggressive mediocrity.

It's not that Neeson isn't agreeably watchable in these kind of films.  Watching the grizzled and gravel voiced ex-Oskar Schindler play roll after roll involving specialized men with a particular set of skills that make them dangerous for any nefarious force getting in their way has its B-grade pleasures.  Unfortunately, Neeson seems especially bored and stiff throughout BLACKLIGHT and rarely finds a way to give us a genuine rooting interest in his character and/or his protection mode pursuits.  Maybe there's just so many times that the Oscar nominated actor can play the same essential variation of the same action hero archetype before it starts to bore audiences senseless.  At a ripe 69-years-old, Neeson still crafts a commanding and convincing presence on camera and is thoroughly convincing as a lethal force of nature, but there's only so much of his commendable gravitas to go around in BLACKLIGHT, which features a sleep-inducing narrative, undercooked themes, and a legitimate lack of big stakes and thrills that does the actor no favors whatsoever.  By around the 30 minute or so mark I found myself struggling to care about anything that was transpiring in the film. 



BLACKLIGHT has a modestly intriguingly opening sequence, though, as we are introduced to an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez inspired politician named Sofia Flores (Mal Jarnson) that's giving an impassioned speech at a D.C. rally to inspire the mostly working class citizens attending it.  Unfortunately, this up-and-coming leader is brutally killed in a car accident that looks awfully staged.  We then shift to Neeson's Travis Block, a career undercover FBI agent that specializes in his abilities to get prominent people out of dangerous jams.  One dangerous jam early on involves the wily old veteran infiltrating a white supremacist rally to rescue another fellow operative that's in too deep.  His boss is also his buddy in FBI director Gabriel Robinson (Aiden Quinn), who you know - you just know! - will end up being a rotten to the core bad guy that will royally screw over his BFF in his pursuit of power.  Some movies telegraph their twists, and movies like BLACKLIGHT methodically spell them out, assuming that everyone watching is a dummy.  Despite the fact that both Travis and Gabriel have a friendship that goes back as far as their tours in Vietnam, they're nevertheless on a collision course for break-up.   

From here, BLACKLIGHT introduces us to another key player in Dusty (Taylor John Smith), who has appeared to have gone rogue as an undercover agent, and Gabriel has tasked Travis to swoop in to apprehend and bring Dusty in.  Dusty, on the other hand, has other ideas and wants to spill his guts about government secrets to an intrepid journalist, Mira (Emmy Raver-Lampman).  Along the way, Travis is eventually exposed to a damning secret that taints his relationship with the FBI and his buddy in Gabriel.  The subplot involving the reporter is on pure autopilot (she has a huge story that could blow the roof off of institutions of power, but has a shortsighted editor that stymies her efforts at every waking moment).  Adding conflict to the story is Travis' fractured home life: His grownup daughter in Amanda (Claire van der Boom) steadfastly reminds her dad whenever she can that he was so busy with work that he wasn't there for her in life.  Oy vey.  The screenplay's painfully on-the-nose usage of so many tired genre conventions stick out like a sore thumb. 

Why is BLACKLIGHT - that delves into the world of clandestine FBI operatives and journalists trying to uncover governmental conspiracies - so egregiously...boring?  Worse yet, why does this hilariously scripted film take itself so bloody seriously all the time?  There are attempts by director Mark Williams and screenwriter Nick May to engage in some timely commentary about the duplicitous aspect of espionage work, shadowy governmental agents and agencies, and the perils of courageous journalists struggling to search for the truth and let it out for the world to see.  Mournfully, BLACKLIGHT is so clichéd riddled that it often unintentionally comes off as self-parody at times.  Travis as a character is simply not a compelling entity in his own film, despite a wholly capable actor of Neeson's stature at the helm.  He's one of those honor bound military men that'll do anything for God and country, but then has his world flipped upside down when it realizes that his work for the government wasn't morally righteous at all.  All of this builds to some howl inducing standoffs between Neeson and Quinn, two routinely fine actors that have to engage in some awfully wooden exchanges: (Gabriel) "You work for me...you're my weapon!" (Travis): "After all this time...that's all I am too you."  

Ouch.  That's some ultra stiff writing right there. 

Williams' direction is replete with distracting stylistic elements that, I think, he hopes will jazz up this otherwise lifeless and DOA thriller.  The action in BLACKLIGHT is so haphazardly assembled and lacking in any sense of visceral impact that it really makes the resulting film feel like it's just lazily coasting by to hit the end credits so that it can put itself (and us) out of misery.  This thriller is too ineptly chill for its own good, and like THE MARKSMAN and THE ICE ROAD before it, BLACKLIST represents a new career low for Neeson, who's going through the motions just enough to warrant a paycheck (banking on his aging mug partaking in these cheap retrograde affairs is getting less defensible with each new one).  For every TAKEN or COLD PURSUIT (perhaps his most underrated recent thriller) there are numbingly pedestrian actioneers like BLACKLIGHT, which shows that maybe - just maybe - Neeson needs a new kind of career intervention to rejuvenate his creative juices.  

At one point in the film his character states, "I've been thinking, maybe it's time I hang it up."   

How telling.  How very, very telling.  

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